There was a seismic shift in the world of major college athletics on Friday, as the Big Ten announced that the conference had voted unanimously to add UCLA and USC to the conference, bringing the conference to 16 members, with rumors that the conference may also add additional members in the near future.
It’s likely a great financial move for the conference as a whole, as they gobble up another large swath of cable subscribers on the west coast for their television network, and gain more bargaining leverage for the monstrous television rights deal they’re currently negotiating which is set to be announced later this summer. But what does it mean for the league’s forgotten step-child, the hockey conference?
This goes against one of my core beliefs—that anyone discussing ‘television markets’ in relation to college hockey should be punched in the throat—but there’s a certain natural curiosity about where college hockey fits when there is major news like this, so it’s at least worth discussing.
In the wake of yesterday’s news, people got excited about some tweets put out by UCLA’s club hockey team:
First off, a club hockey team ‘aspiring’ to be a Division I team doesn’t really qualify as news. Every club hockey player wishes they were playing D-I, foremost among many reasons is because it means someone else is paying the tremendous costs associated with ice time. Quotes from a club team don’t mean much; quotes from the money people do.
And while the level of play in the ACHA for club hockey is pretty good—I think most people would be surprised by how good it is—it’s really a whole different thing from Division I hockey. If UCLA and USC wanted to start D-I hockey programs, they’d basically be starting from scratch.
I’m not going to say that UCLA and USC adding hockey programs will never happen. But taking an honest look at the current landscape, I’m not sure I see much in the way of incentives for them to do so at the current moment.
It’s no secret that the Big Ten Hockey Conference has been a television flop. When the conference began, there were wild promises of every game being televised. Last year, just 25 games, including the conference playoffs, made it onto BTN. The majority ended up on the Big Ten’s streaming platform.
I don’t see that trend changing with the addition of new conference members. A bigger conference means more men’s and women’s basketball games to air. UCLA and USC also have pretty strong women’s volleyball programs too, a sport which regularly doubles the audience that hockey games draw.
The future for Big Ten hockey, like the rest of college hockey, is with streaming. That’s why these latest round of TV negotiations potentially hold some interest for college hockey fans. There is the possibility that when the Big Ten signs their mega TV deal, the content that was on the Big Ten’s streaming platform gets shipped over to ESPN+ or Amazon Prime or Peacock or whoever the highest bidder is. That would be a win for college hockey fans in terms of accessibility and cost. But I can’t see it moving the needle for administration at those schools. If UCLA and USC was interested in having hockey games on a streaming platform, they could have been doing that for years now.
The other issue is that this particular moment seems to be a particularly challenging one to start such an ambitious venture. While smaller schools at the fringe of Division I have been able to add programs in recent years, we just saw the challenges for a major school to add hockey in Illinois’ failed attempt, despite what appeared to be a pretty honest effort on their part.
I see the same issues that sunk Illinois hockey affecting UCLA and USC as well. The first being that both schools would also need a new arena, and with construction costs inflated and interest rates rising, that is going to be very challenging to do.
But the other, bigger issue is the rapidly changing climate in major college athletics as schools move—some of them at a crawl, and some at a full sprint—towards a free and open market for top-end basketball and football players. Amidst rumors of recruits receiving seven-figure deals to attend schools, it’s hard to envision a school shaking down their donor pool for the large sum of money necessary to start a hockey program.
I’m not sure some of the NIL numbers being thrown around right now are sustainable over the long term, but at least for the next few years while this new landscape settles itself, I think schools are going to very careful about where they and their donors spend their money for fear of being left behind.
Again, that doesn’t make it impossible that it will happen. We all live our lives at the whims of insane billionaires. But I don’t see the Big Ten college hockey brand being much of a motivating force.