Big Ten football fans are in a bit of a funk lately. It’s been years since the conference was a legitimate threat to win a national title. It’s even been a while since the Big Ten has made a good showing of itself in bowl games. Throw in the media’s tendency to dogpile on the conference and you’ve got the makings of some world-class conspiracy theories.
The most prominent of these theories, like all semi-plausible conspiracy theories, has at least a little basis in fact: “ESPN is pumping up the SEC because it has a big stake in the SEC Network!” Yes, yes it does. But does that explain the situation entirely? Nope.
We need to start by talking about what bias is and what bias is not. If ESPN’s college football experts say “the SEC is really good at football,” that’s not bias. It’s as close to an objective fact as you can get in college football these days. It’s not even bias if ESPN keeps saying that. It’s only bias if ESPN says the SEC is good when it demonstrably isn’t.
It’s not even bias to frame stories and storylines in a certain way. The facts of a Bears-Packers football game can support both a “Packers win” story and a “Bears lose” story. How a media outlet covers a particular story tells you more about that outlet’s audience than it does about that outlet’s bias. After all, media entities that don’t give their customers what they want tend to become ex-media outlets very quickly.
So how does this relate to the national media’s increasing use of Big Ten football as a scratching post? Of all the Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten comes closest to having a border-to-border, coast-to-coast national fan base. That fan base is certainly not evenly spread across the country, but it’s more widely spread than any other. Big Ten fans can’t match SEC fans for intensity and devotion (a fact for which I am thankful, every day) but they are far closer to being the kind of audience advertisers will spend big money to reach.
Thus, when Chris Fowler said that it would be great for ESPN if the Big Ten was better, he was absolutely right. I mean, think about it: The Big Ten is in a business partnership with ESPN’s biggest competitor, and ESPN still gladly pays for Big Ten football. It does not do so out of the goodness of its heart. It does so because any national outlet covering college football would be nuts to ignore the Big Ten. It would be like broadcasting Major League Baseball but ignoring the Yankees and Cubs. You might not like them, you might think they’re overrated, and you might even be right about that, but people care about them, so you’d better cover them.
That leads to the occasional bout of unfairness. As someone pointed out to me on Twitter, it seems like ESPN and others compare only the Big Ten’s performance to the SEC’s, when the ACC and Big XII have both failed to dazzle this season. You see the Big Ten compared to the SEC because those are the two conferences ESPN’s audience cares the most about. It doesn’t display a bias towards anything other than the tastes of that audience.
Now, let’s be honest: There are some real, unfair examples of bias in the ESPN and elsewhere. The size of the Big Ten’s national following and that following’s relative lack of in-depth knowledge makes Big Ten fans incredibly easy to troll. Throw in a good dose of Midwestern fatalism and all those “gee, the Big Ten isn’t very good” stories become evergreen. (The Big Ten’s substantial hate-dom among SEC fans doesn’t help matters a bit.)
That’s why, for instance, media outlets will inevitably say Iowa should expect more than 7-5 or 8-4 seasons from Kirk Ferentz for what Iowa pays him, but won’t ask why Nick Saban, who makes around twice what Ferentz does, tried to kick a field goal on the last play of the Iron Bowl last season. Or got curbstomped by Oklahoma. Or lost to Ole Miss. If $3 million and change should get Iowa 10-2 every year, shouldn’t $7 million and change get Alabama 12-0 or 11-1 every year? At the very least, shouldn’t it get a team that knows missed field goals can be returned by the defense?
That’s the sort of bias worth complaining about. But it’s not enough to swing the pendulum of public opinion. There are legitimate things the Big Ten does on and off the football field that harm its public perception. In my next article I’ll get into those details.