Big Ten: 'It's A Win-Win'
Opening Arms to Notre Dame Born From Necessity
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Give credit to the Big Ten powers that be, they know some things need to change.
While some of the negative reaction to the Big Ten in its first three years may be overreactions, and its poor showing overall so far by its teams may be cyclical, there are some issues that need to be addressed.
The Big Ten took a step towards doing that when it invited Notre Dame to join the conference, the news of which broke Tuesday. The Irish will start playing there in 2017-18. The league will also be looking into changing the format of its postseason tournament, which has had trouble drawing, for a variety of reasons. Bringing in Notre Dame will only help towards changing up the format.
Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia took over his role last summer, after Jennifer Heppel departed to become commissioner of the Patriot League. He's already had to deal with a number of big issues, ranging from the age limit proposal that drew the ire of the college hockey community at large, to figuring out how to kick-start the league in a positive direction. And now the Notre Dame situation, and perhaps even an "Arizona State situation" in the coming months.
Notre Dame looked to the Big Ten as a possible landing spot three years ago, but the Big Ten was not of a mindset then to take teams only for one sport. However, bringing in Johns Hopkins last year for lacrosse opened the door, and the growing need to mix things up spurred on more vigorous interest.
We spoke with Traviolia about the decision and about what might be next.
CHN: What was the timeline of this coming about?
Traviolia: One of the first things I did was go out to all of our coaches and met with them one on one, and a consistent top priority I heard from them was, "We need more members." So, hearing that, you go back and talk to your current membership and find out what plans, if any, exist in terms of adding sports in the future. And hockey is just very unique in terms of the investment (needed), and the Penn State scenario doesn't happen all that often. So the organic growth within the current membership, that's a very passive strategy. I'm not saying it won't happen down the line, but I didn't see anything in the near future.
So having had the door opened with affiliate membership with Johns Hopkins, we thought an affiliate membership in men's ice hockey might make sense. So there was due diligence on our part to find schools we thought fit the profile, and Notre Dame fit the bill. They're a great hockey program and we're really excited to get them in the fold.
CHN: The Big Ten is pretty big, and you can't just make that call on your own. I assume you had to get OK from the top on down to pursue somebody, because this is still a new thing (affiliate membership).
Traviolia: It requires approval of our board of directors, which is presidents and chancellors of all 14 of our full member institutions. So upon doing the due diligence and talking to Notre Dame, we presented this option to our board of directors, who supported it.
CHN: Was it a trickier sell than Johns Hopkins? Because Notre Dame, that's a big deal. It goes back decades as far as speculation on whether the Big Ten would ever invite Notre Dame (in all sports). So there's a little more baggage involved.
Traviolia: Sure it's a different situation. I think the commonalities between the two, with our expansion out East in going to 14 members, the geography of which we cover is so much greater. And in the case of lacrosse, and hockey, it's a sport that's important to a subset of our members, and it's a minority of our members. And we think we need to have our minds open to affiliate membership to really improve the competitive experience of the schools that sponsor this.
It's different too, as you noted, they're a little different. In the case of men's lacrosse, when Maryland and Rutgers were added, that was institution Nos. 4 and 5 (in men's lacrosse), so actually we needed a sixth to create a Big Ten Conference. So that was the scenario with Johns Hopkins. And it made sense — it's a great academic institution, they have a wonderful competitive history in the sport, and they have great rivalries with Maryland and Rutgers and that was something we thought we could build on.
CHN: Is it safe to say it's trickier because people will talk about what this means for football and so on.
Traviolia: Sure, Hopkins was neat and simple because they're a Division III school except for men's lacrosse. So there wouldn't be any speculation about additional moves. Yeah, Notre Dame has a history with (the Big Ten), but this conversation from day one has been specifically about ice hockey. So as we evaluated it, and Notre Dame evaluated it, we thought it was a win-win scenario.
CHN: So this wasn't about leading to football, it was just about helping hockey?
Traviolia: Yes, it's been a hockey-specific conversation the entire time.
CHN: Notre Dame probably would've done this three years ago. Was it just not the right timing then for the Big Ten?
Traviolia: I think a lot of things have to evolve naturally. We got to six schools with Penn State, we wanted to compete, we started it. At the time, we hadn't done the affiliate membership yet. So (forming a hockey conference) was really, "Let's get it started, let's learn from experience, and see how it goes." It's very similar to our conference tournament. "OK, we have an all-comers tournament at a single site over three days, let's just do it. We have some schools coming from the WCHA, some coming from the CCHA, we're going to Detroit and St. Paul, and let's just start it and let's learn, and then we can tweak it going forward." And I think after two years, having the tournament in both locations, and having the experience of how a six-team league works, we have notes on how it can get better. The Notre Dame addition is one step. We're going to get everyone together and talk about future tournament formats, future scheduling, what we can do with BTN (Big Ten Network), and use our own practical experience on setting a roadmap for the future.
CHN: Speaking of which, are you open to the idea of the super tournament [the idea floated that would have the WCHA, Big Ten and NCHC all play their tournament's final championship weekend at the same venue]. Will that be discussed at least?
Traviolia: The only thing off the table, I think, is the status quo. ... An all-comers, neutral-site format is not the best option for us. We can do better. We're not really leaning one way. We're open to the whole gamut. Whether we do everything on campus, whether we do a hybrid of campus and neutral site, whether we want to stand alone, and whether we want to work with other conferences. I think we want to explore all options.
CHN: Back to Notre Dame, the trickiness of it — I have to imagine the television aspect of it had to at least be a tricky aspect. How hard was it to work out?
Traviolia: To be honest, it was a non-issue. We feel we have a great television arrangement with BTN. Notre Dame has their own TV deal (with NBC Sports). Easy because we already had a road map with how we work with Hopkins.
CHN: But Hopkins doesn't have a huge deal with NBC like Notre Dame has.
Traviolia: Correct. But they do have a nice television relationship with ESPN for their home lacrosse matches. And it was important to them. And we're not adding affiliate members because we feel we need more TV or more exposure. So it was really, "You have your TV deal, you keep that, you control the rights to your home games, and the Big Ten has the rights to all the games on the other campuses, and the conference owns the rights to the tournament." So there really wasn't a lot of talk about that, because the principle was pretty basic.
CHN: Is BTN fully owned an operated by the Big Ten?
Traviolia: BTN is a joint venture between the Big Ten Conference and FOX.
CHN: I didn't know if there were contractual issues like exclusivity rights that would have to be hammered out.
Traviolia: What we own are the rights for televising events that are on our member institution campuses, and sometimes their home markets. So if Minnesota had a game and took it to Xcel (Center) to play, those are still Minnesota home TV rights, so to speak. So those are the rights we have that provide to BTN, or in some cases we sell to ESPN or whoever. But I look at Notre Dame providing just another great national outlet. And same for them, when they go on the road, many of their games will be on nationally-distributed BTN. So that's a plus for them. And when our people are on the road, some of those games will be on NBC, which is fine. So I think it will be a win-win with more exposure for everyone.
CHN: The natural next question is about Arizona State. They're hanging out there, and bringing them in would give you an even eight teams. Does this open the door for them?
Traviolia: We don't talk about hypotheticals. We're very happy with Notre Dame. This was an ideal and there was a need competitively to increase our numbers, but we're not about just growing to get bigger, it has to be the right fit. The best example of how important it is, we were at 11 full-time members for 20 years. Yes it's a little funky on the scheduling side, but you figure it out.