Big Ten commissioner Delany weighs in on state of the conference

John Supinie

The economic downturn means that even college athletics are not immune from financial crunches. One day before the Big Ten Tournament, commissioner Jim Delany touched on the state of the Big Ten Conference and the economic climate following a meeting of conference marketing directors at Memorial Stadium.

Budgets

While money will become tighter at the national, conference and institutional levels, the Big Ten is adamant about one thing: holding firm on scholarships and opportunities for student-athletes is the top priority, Delany said.

"There was total consensus that the athlete opportunity and athlete scholarship is the last (option),'' he said. "It's protected at this point. We're looking to do business in a more frugal, more sensible, more reasonable way. That could touch different units in different ways. It could touch travel, meetings, etc. That athlete experience, we'll try to keep intact.''

Athletic department budgets range from roughly $50 million to $100 million within the Big Ten, Delany said, because schools sponsor between 18 and 33 teams. Even if some sports budgets get a trim in tight economic times, the expense of charter flights for men's and women's basketball teams won't change. The conference can't operate in conjunction with its TV partners (CBS, ESPN and the Big Ten Network) without quick travel for teams.

"We want students to be back in class,'' Delany said. "They won't get back in class on buses. I don't see us going back to bus transportation (in basketball). The cost of chartering is expensive. The revenues and the resources that are provided by the (TV) agreements are significant.''

NCAA Tournament

A six-year veteran of the NCAA selection committee, Delany knows what goes on during the process of picking teams for the NCAA field. According to him, the Big Ten's style of basketball in league play will have no impact on the conference’s ability to advance teams into the bracket.

"Now you're talking about win or lose 80-70 or 70-60,'' Delany said. "I don't think it matters at all. They have so much more meaningful data. Fascination with the style of play is little bit interesting. There are a lot of different ways to play the game. People don't want to play our teams. They respect our teams.''

Delany is against any expansion to the 65-team NCAA field.

"The tournament has great rhythm,'' he said. "Everyone that can win the national championship is in the tournament. You have the top 50 teams in the country plus 15. There are a lot of good teams that don't get in, but I think anyone who can win the national championship is in there. Taking it to four weeks or 3 1/2 weeks doesn't add value.

"Other than the Ivy League, everyone is playing in a (conference) tournament, so everyone had a chance to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.''

Big Ten Tournament

In the second year of a five-year contract in Indianapolis, the Big Ten Tournament faces a tough economic climate when "it's chic to save,'' Delany said. With less discretionary spending, tickets don't move. Even the ACC Tournament has tickets available for the first time since 1966.

The Big Ten won't decide upon the future of the tournament until after the fourth year in Indianapolis. Delany would likely open the bidding to other cities, but Chicago remains the best realistic alternative. The Big Ten coaches prefer the 18-game conference schedule and the tournament over a 20-game round robin and the tournament, Delany said.

Big Ten Network

Delany is pleased with the quality of network programming – the network was nominated for seven cable TV awards, he said – and obviously likes the league's own stimulus package. BTN president Mark Silverman reported the network will turn a profit this year for the first time. Advertising revenue doubled and money generated from affiliate fees increased, he said.

After the network became available in 70 million homes nationwide and exposure grew in Canada and within new markets such as the Armed Forces Network, it was easier to sell advertising. According to Silverman, the network sold 90 percent of its television spots in football, but the number fell to 50 percent in basketball when the recession hit. Nevertheless, the network exceeded its plan.

"In a world of likely declining state funding and revenue for state universities, the (Big Ten schools) will receive profits from this network and escalating rights fees over the next 20 years,'' Silverman said.

John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.