The answer is yes, but the exact reason is not as simple as looking at revenue numbers. The SEC has some relatively small advantage in terms of overall and football spending, but its biggest advantage is that its athletics departments are actually smaller.
Overall, the SEC spends about $8.3 million more on athletics per school (all are median figures pulled from EADA reporting). That includes about $1.3 million more on football. As a percentage of the athletic department, there is not much difference, with both conferences averaging about 25% of athletic department spending on football. Men’s basketball spending is also similar, with the Big Ten outspending the SEC by just $90,000 per school.
The biggest difference is in the numbers of sports sponsored. Big Ten schools are each fielding 4–5 more teams than SEC schools (indoor/outdoor track and cross country counted as one team per gender). On the men’s side, the most teams the SEC sponsors is nine, just one above the fewest in the Big Ten. And no SEC department approaches anything like Ohio State and Penn State which have 33 and 25 different programs respectively.
Focusing on just the top half of each conference in total spending highlights this further. Many numbers flip. Instead of lagging $1.3 million behind in football spending, the top half of the Big Ten outspends the top half of the SEC by almost $900,000. The Big Ten goes from spending more on basketball to spending over $200,000 less than the SEC. But the largest Big Ten athletic departments are even larger than the largest SEC departments, fielding 5–6 more teams.
So while the SEC as a whole has more revenue and spends more on football, it potentially has more resources to redirect to football. Fewer teams means less overhead. Direct costs can be cut with roster restrictions, more regional and local scheduling, or straight budget cuts. Each new dollar that comes in has fewer mouths to feed. When the conference expands, the Big Ten has to divert more resources toward more nonrevenue sports for travel.
The problem is not that the Big Ten is already being outspent by the SEC, because at the top of the conference that is not true. The bigger issue for the Big Ten is that it already spends more on football but cannot overturn the other advantages the SEC has in terms of prestige, recruiting hotbeds, and attracting top coaches. And if schools are all of the sudden able to spend more on football, Big Ten schools appear less able to do so than SEC schools. Any increased revenue will potentially be fought over by more sports in the Big Ten.
Jim Delany’s threat to reclassify to Division III or deemphasize athletics like the Ivy League makes sense against this backdrop. Both the Ivies and DIII schools are known for sponsoring more sports and spending more evenly across all those sports (albeit spending any order of magnitude less in the case of DIII schools). The Big Ten, as well as the Pac–12 and the ACC, have generally sponsored more sports than the SEC or Big XII.
If football spending is further deregulated, from relatively minor things like additional staff and FedEx fees up to larger issues like stipends and player compensation, Division I will have to move toward the SEC/Big XII model of offering close to the minimum number of sports on the men’s side and just enough on the women’s side to satisfy Title IX. Meanwhile the Big Ten wants to expand into new sports like ice hockey and lacrosse.
In that future, the Big Ten is philosophically closer to Division III or the Ivy League than it is to the SEC. To catch-up to the SEC, it would need to disband teams wholesale. A whole conference closing up teams in the way Maryland and Cal originally did over the last few years is a very tough sell. Then again, so is dropping between one and three levels of football and basketball competition. The real question would be just how much the Big Ten values competing against like-minded schools.
For whatever reason, the SEC schools are generally structured better for deregulation than the Big Ten. Perhaps we’ll learn one day that this was a master plan devised by Roy Kramer and Mike Slive. Or more likely it is one of those accidents of history, that sports like soccer, lacrosse, and ice hockey never caught on in the South. Either way, the SEC is poised to take advantage while the Big Ten may continue to scramble over the next few years.