A conversation with Big Ten commish Jim Delany

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Jim Delany has grown women's sports in the Big Ten by 32 teams and more than 2,000 playing opportunities.

Jim Delany is one of the most influential people in intercollegiate athletics.

He has served as commissioner of the Big Ten, one the country's premier athletic conferences, since 1989. Delany's accomplishments at the Big Ten include expanding the conference to 14 schools (Rutgers and Maryland were recently added and will start play in 2014), creating the Big Ten Network (the nation's first conference-owned broadcast network) and helping devise a new playoff system in college football.

The conference's Gender Equity Action Plan, initiated in 1992, has resulted in the creation of 32 new conference teams and more than 2,000 new playing opportunities for female student-athletes. The Big Ten's current athletic programs comprise nearly 4,000 women who play on a total of 159 teams in 13 different sports.

We recently spoke to Delany about the evolution of women's collegiate sports and more.


Question from Val Ackerman: Tell me about the ways women's college sports have progressed over the past few decades.

Answer from Jim Delany: Well, I've been here for over 20 years, and I think probably the most emphatic change has been the increase in participation levels. In 1989, when I came here, the Big Ten ... probably reflected the national trend. We were 71-percent male and 29-percent female, and we didn't know exactly what Title IX meant in terms of what was required, but we knew it wasn't 71/29.

We were thinking hard about how to make progress. A group of people -- I think, well-intentioned people -- understood that in order to get from "A" to "C" you had to go to "B" first. So, we were the first conference to voluntarily undertake participation goals that came from administrators, as well as presidents. It wasn't totally embraced by everyone because we were at 70/29; we decided within five years we would get to 60/40, and all the schools did. We [made that decision] in 1992, and by 1997 we were at 60/40.

AP Photo/Ralph Wilson

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany says women's sports is a big part of the content plan for the conference's TV network.

And what was interesting [was that] there was a momentum that came from that commitment, and within five years thereafter, we were at 51/49. Over the course of time, we've added over 2,000 women's opportunities, created three or four new championships and probably 50 or 60 new programs; [so] there's been an increase in quantity.

I would say there's also been an increase in the quality of the experience. It's a little harder to measure, but I recall [that] back in 1990, if you looked at our expenditures, women's sports and men's Olympic sports were sort of comparable -- they were each receiving about 20 percent of the operational dollars. Today, women's sports are receiving approximately 35 percent ... so, I would say the percentages of participation has increased, the facilities have improved and the quality of the experience, from the travel to the academic support, has improved.

Q: Have there been challenges in managing this growth?

A: There can be frustration on many sides. In football and basketball, I think there's a sense of, "Well, we produce it; why don't we have what we need, always?" From the women's side, it's "How could we have this investment and really not grow our audience, our fan share, our fan support, more than we have?" And on the Olympic men's side, it's, "We've stood still; we still get the same percentage we did before and, to the extent there have been any opportunities lost, they've been on our side of the ledger."

In particular, that's probably true in the sport of wrestling. You see resistance, [particularly] in conferences that don't have the resources we have [in the Big Ten]. We've been fortunate. With the addition of Nebraska, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, we'll be serving close to 10,000 athletes, and it's pretty close to 50/50 [males to females]. Regardless of the source [of athletic revenues], they are [considered] institutional revenues and are used to achieve institutional goals, including fairness for men's and women's sports.

Q: Which women's college sports are showing the most growth today? Do you have any predictions about the trajectory of any particular sport moving forward?

A: Basketball had real growth in the '80s and '90s, but it's been a little bit flat-lined over the past decade. Volleyball grew less quickly out of the gate, but is moving in terms of filling venues, the presentation of the product, adoption of rally scoring ... all of this bodes well for [that sport]. Softball has a different template that's conducive to the athleticism that exists. ... We see niche audiences for gymnastics, which is popular in the Big Ten and draws fairly large crowds. We have also had some success in lacrosse, where big games against big opponents draw attention. [In that sport], the progress in the mid-Atlantic states is now translating to the Midwest, so there's a good story there.

[And] the Big Ten Network is looking at quality performances ... and has good enough capabilities to create visibility for sports which maybe started off with less and were underexposed.

Q: What is it going to take for women's college sports to move forward in terms of generating corporate and fan interest and revenues? Is it a resource issue? Is it a cultural issue? Is it just going to be a matter of time?

A: It's probably a little bit of each. These sports are in very different evolutionary places. College football played its first game in 1869. There's been a fascination with it for 100 years. It's had many problems, it's had many successes and has developed a fan base. Men's college basketball has been played since the early 1900s. And there are a lot of social forces at play. Women were not accorded the same access to education and athletic opportunity in the first half of the [past] century, or even the second half of the century.

Sports [today also] come into a marketplace which is already occupied, and to some extent crowded, [with] competition -- the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball [have fan bases] that have been developed over decades and even a century. Different pro sports have come and gone. Bowling at one time was on live television and the NBA wasn't. So, this is, to me, a very competitive environment ... that's based on building fan support and a base and evolution.

And I always feel like the predisposition -- the enjoyment, the culture of political support, emotional support -- is sort of not equally divided. It's earned. It's won. It's intergenerational. It's passed from father to son. If fathers stopped taking their sons to baseball games, baseball will be negatively affected. You don't have moms who played women's basketball, so they have a difficult time passing it down to their daughters, in the same way that I think a lot of social codes are passed down. It is, you know, generation to generation; parent to son; mother to daughter; father to daughter.

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Jim Delany initiated a Gender Equity Plan in 1992 to bring up Big Ten's women's sports participation numbers.

Just because there is equal opportunity doesn't mean there's going to be equal outcome in the marketplace, as measured by fans or TV interest. [But] this paradigm isn't new on our campuses, as we often shift revenues and costs among departments and colleges to support and provide a wide array of educational offerings.

Q: What do you think makes women's sports at the intercollegiate level distinctive? Where do they fit into the student-athlete experience? If it's not about grooming athletes to play at the pro level or generating revenue streams, then where do they fit?

A: I think the experience [of being a student athlete] is justification, even though there may not be economic outcomes that everybody celebrates. In fact, you could argue that when you have great financial reward, sometimes it distorts the experience and puts pressure on the institution in unusual ways. Likewise, how those funds are expended creates other kinds of pressures and expectations.

It's a model that's founded, I think, a little bit in terms of opportunity [and] America wanting to be a fair place ... and I think most people would agree that competitive experience is the experience of being on a team, learning to compete, train, learning to win gracefully, learning to lose with dignity, learning to play a subordinate role sometimes and to play a dominant role other times -- all lessons that are learned probably best in athletics.

I think there's more than an educational experience here. It's something that's tied to being in communities, being constructive members. These competitions and opportunities are really more than just games and teams; they're part of a fabric of higher education. If we're going to sponsor them, they ought to be widely available.

But it's obvious to me, whether it's men's sports, Olympic sports or women's sports, that the opportunities and experiences are phenomenal. They also can put pressure on institutions, and we're still trying to figure out exactly how to make it all work. The more commercial success [we have] in sports, the more pressure it creates on the institution and the more expectations it creates for women's sports, as well as for Olympic sports.

Q: Now that we're 40 years into Title IX, what do you think should be the priorities for college sports leaders as they manage, direct and plot out realistic goals and revenue opportunities for their women's sports programs?

A: You have 1,000 different universities. You have junior colleges. You have NAIA schools. You have modest schools that are municipally based. You have others that are national or international. So, I think it starts and ends with an honest focus on resources. Is there an expectation here that all opportunities are going to be generated out of general funds and the athletic programs are going to be in competition with the academic side of the university? If that's the case, I think you have to chart a course which is balanced -- there are opportunities for men and opportunities for women, and they may be narrow or broad, but they're going to be based on resource availability.

And when you allocate resources in that context -- and this is probably true for 950 of the 1,000 institutions that sponsor sports -- it has to be done in a fiscally sound way, so the primary focus or objective of an institution is not diminished.

You have to, No. 1, ensure you're in compliance with federal law; No. 2, you have to be fair to students on your campus. You have to meet the tests. And beyond that, I think you have to look at the interest in your region and in your conference and put forward and sponsor programs that are relevant. And not all men's programs are relevant from a public perspective; not all of them are equally marketable.

Likewise, it's true for women's sports. No one has unlimited resources ... so you have to balance and focus going forward and [consider] which ones are centers of excellence, which are more appropriately competitive inside of a conference, and which are unique to us. There may not be any competition in our conference, but certainly, you look at a Northwestern lacrosse program, or you look at a synchronized swimming program, or a wrestling program at another place -- they have a unique and meaningful place on that campus.

Q: If you could change or improve anything about women's college sports, what would it be?

A: I think probably a reduction in influence by interested third parties, whether it's agents or high school coaches or parents. That's one.

Second, that the balance between the academics and athletics and marketing of these programs is done in a way which is consistent with the young person getting a great educational experience ... that the outside interference, as well as the athletic interference, doesn't undermine the primary reason the young person is there.

I am not there on a day-to-day basis, but I hear [the outside interference] is the athletic version of the helicopter parent. In the women's area, it could come less from agents, but more from parents; it could be former coaches, it could be an expectation for a trophy for every kid. I think that has infected men's and women's athletics.

Q: You need to cut the cord.

A: Cut the cord and really dive in, and [let] the coaches be given their due. Render to Caesar what's Caesar's; to God what's God's; and also render the academics the primary position. I would have the same sense for men's athletics as I do for women's athletics. It becomes a little more difficult on the men's side at the very high echelon because of the involvement of professional sports and the allure of financial incentives.

Q: How do women's sports fit into your content plans for the Big Ten Network?

A: They do, and importantly. When we created this network, we wanted to have control over the presentation. Part of that for us was controlling how much alcohol advertising there was. We [also] wanted to control the fact that women's sports weren't always the last part of the discussion in a major TV negotiation. We also wanted institutional educational features, as well ... we wanted the network to project our values -- competition, equity, education.

And so, when we found a partner in Fox, we explained we wanted to get a commitment that, across [all] platforms, we would have approximately the same number of events for men as we do for women, and we've been able to achieve that. We don't have the same ratings, but last year we had probably 440 [women's sports] events on either linear or digital. That's part of what we want to be, what we want to project.

Q: What advice would you give women who are looking to assume leadership positions in intercollegiate athletics?

A: If they want to work at the highest levels of college sports, they need to focus on external areas, things like development, revenue generation, sponsorship. Because leadership isn't tied as much to operations these days as it is to how to develop revenues and [generate] awareness and [build] brands. You need to be less about operations and more about the big picture, and you need to involve yourself in these external forces.

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