The conventional Big Ten
expansion timeline begins Dec. 15, 2009, when the conference released a statement calling for a "thorough evaluation of options."
But uncovering the true origin of Nebraska joining the Big Ten — which becomes official Friday — requires a trip in the way-back machine and involves champagne and bruised egos.
The date: April 30, 2004. That's when a posse of ESPN
executives, led by Mark Shapiro
, John Wildhack, Loren Matthews and Chuck Gerber, met with conference honchos at Big Ten headquarters in Park Ridge.
The Big Ten's long-term deal with the network had three years remaining, but Commissioner Jim Delany wanted to dip his toe in the pool. Turns out the water was ice cold. And shark-infested.
In his early 30s, Shapiro had risen to executive vice president of programming and production after spearheading the "SportsCentury" series and boosting ratings with shows such as "Pardon the Interruption," "Around the Horn," "Dream Job," "Playmakers" and the World Series of Poker.
Shapiro also was a cutthroat negotiator, as chronicled in the book "Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN," and his style rankled the likes of NHL
Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NBA's David Stern.
An amiable session in which the Big Ten and ESPN cleaned up "housekeeping matters" — schedules and announcers — took a nasty turn at the one-hour mark. That's when talk turned to a contract extension, a negotiating session that went nowhere. Fast.
"The shortest one I ever had," Delany told the Tribune. "He lowballed us and said: 'Take it or leave it. If you don't take our offer, you are rolling the dice.' I said: 'Consider them rolled.' "
Delany had warned ESPN officials that without a significant rights-fee increase, he would try to launch a new channel that would pose competition both for TV viewers and the Big Ten's inventory of games: the Big Ten Network
"He threw his weight around," Shapiro said in a telephone interview, "and said, 'I'm going to get my big (rights-fee) increase and start my own network.' Had ESPN stepped up and paid BCS
-type dollars, I think we could have prevented the network. In retrospect, that might have been the right thing to do. Jim is making a nice penny on that."
Said Delany: "If Mark had presented a fair offer, we would have signed it. And there would not be a Big Ten Network."
The BTN, profitable in its second year, doled out about $7 million to each Big Ten school in 2009-10. Without that chunk of a $22 million per school TV revenue distribution pie, the conference might not have had schools such as Nebraska thirsting for an invitation.
The network's formation also encouraged new thinking from the universities' typically conservative presidents and chancellors. A 12th team would lead to two divisions and a conference championship game in football and another giant payday. Fox
purchased the rights to the first six title games for between $20 million and $25 million per season.
Said Delany: "The Big Ten Network was a factor, but I think we still would have expanded. You can take a different tack."