Big Ten, Big Picture…Three Best Practices of “Expansion” That Have Little To Do With Adding Schools…
big ten, big picture…three best practices of “expansion” that have

Big Ten, Big Picture…Three Best Practices of “Expansion” That Have Little To Do With Adding Schools…

Yes The Big Ten Conference has dominated the summer college news cycle with its moves to add UCLA and USC to their national mix, which has further churned the murky waters of college alignment during this hot summer.

However not to get lost in the mix were at least three impactful, big picture legacy events that tied the conference under Kevin Warren to being more socially active, more inclusive and more adept at storytelling and media engagement away from sports not called football or men’s and women’s basketball.

The three events of note really sent a message to all about the leadership, commitment to education and the student-athlete, and big picture thinking that we all hope college athletics and its experience are supposed to be all about. The have all happened away from the grind of the school year for most student-athletes across the conference, and may be among the most impactful tentpole events that any conference has supported, nurtured and engaged with on any level.

The latest took place in the shadow of Big Ten football media days, when the conference held a first-ever full two days of media engagement, storytelling and relationship building for women’s volleyball. Held at The Big Ten Network studios in Chicago, seven programs (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State and Purdue) were given the full engagement run, both in person and virtually on Monday, with the other seven (Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Penn State, Rutgers and Wisconsin) going through a similar day on August 2.  Along with their media schedules, the visual of media big and small coming to Chicago was impressive on its own, with student-athletes, and coaches from all 14 Big Ten Conference volleyball programs getting to hang together to talk about common issues and to better understand and find common ground to self-promote as well. The event also was tied to hard news, with the largest-ever broadcast schedule for women’s volleyball at the conference being unveiled.

The event served several purposes. First it showcased that there is an impactful market for engagement and audience for a sport that is not operating in a vacuum. It was a carefully thought out test case for additional sports that can warrant attention beyond a school or league website, and showed real value in the athletes, the coaches and the sport. Second, it provided tangible brand value for the investment in a sport like women’s volleyball, which in turn sends a message to broadcasters, influencers and brands that these games are not just a nice to watch…maybe they are a must to invest in going forward.  It made people in every area think, and realize that just the traditional ways to connect with a large and growing audience isn’t just through the risk averse spends of hoops and football…there are other well established avenues to go down and learn about when looking at a fall college athletic experience.

Can this be done with every sport at every conference? Probably not yet. But the Big Ten Volleyball Media Days opened a door hopefully others in the copycat world of college and professional sports will follow and expand, and that’s great news for all. The Big Ten Media pie didn’t get cut up in smaller pieces, it actually got bigger.

Then if you go back into July, you had a group comprised of 100 student-athletes, coaches, administrators, conference staff, and other key stakeholders from across the conference participating in the Big Life Series: Selma to Montgomery, July 15-17, 2022. The trip was a journey to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, for an immersive and educational experience at a key center of the civil rights movement. It was a key next step for the Big Ten Equality Coalition. The group, which also included student-athletes, coaches, and administrators from the ACC and Pac-12.

The trip began in Montgomery with Sheyann Webb-Christburg, author and eyewitness of the original Bloody Sunday attack, serving as the keynote speaker and a viewing of an episode of the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” It continued Saturday in Selma at the First Baptist Church, where hundreds of students coordinated by the Dallas County Voters League began their days’ long journey from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and continued with a march across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge before the group returns to Montgomery to visit a series of landmarks, museums, and learning centers.

All member institutions had conducted a series of introductory virtual meetings prior to traveling to Alabama to discuss the purpose of the trip and to prepare for their experience. Upon returning to campus after the trip, the Big Ten Conference will provide tools and opportunities for each attendee to convey their experiences about the trip to their peers.

Then going back to the beginning of the summer, the Conference hosted its inaugural Women’s Leadership Summit in Rosemont, Illinois at the conference headquarters, inviting coaches, student-athletes and administrators from all 14 member institutions to the two-day summit. The creation of this leadership summit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.

The conference had a remarkable group of guest speakers joining student-athletes, coaches and administrators in networking, learning and mentorship opportunities. The leadership summit continued on June 24 with a full day of programming at the Big Ten Conference headquarters in Rosemont. A variety of guest speakers presented throughout the day, beginning with a History of Title IX panel, featuring five trailblazers including former Big Ten Conference Deputy Commissioner Diane Dietz. Other featured speakers included an Olympian, FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion, broadcasters from ESPN and Big Ten Network, CEO of the United States Tennis Association and employees with multiple professional sports teams.

So to the risk averse, ROI driven sports business world, are events like these nice to do or must do? Well, if you go back a few years it would probably be easier to say they are nice but not necessary, especially if they take a good amount of capital to make them come to fruition, with no clear financial ROI. That was then. Now its hard to see how other large scale organizations in the industry, especially on the college level, DON’T find ways to create events like this that follow the lead of the Big Ten. And if you are looking for brands to support this content, especially for the last two events, we are at a time where brands need to invest in the cause marketing and community initiative space more than ever. Events like these have national resonance and can really drive a positive holistic agenda.

Yes we understand that conference expansion drives the bottom line. However these three events show a different type of expansion…expansion of thought, engagement, leadership, storytelling that are really what college athletics should be about.

Well done, Big Ten, keep leading in ways beyond the field.

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