July 19, 2013 at 1:32 am

Matt Charboneau

Big Ten's commitment gives Ford Field bowl better chance to thrive

Purdue's visit in 2011 was only the third time a Big Ten team has taken part in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl -- and its predecessor the Motor City Bowl -- in 15 years. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

On the same day the X Games decided Detroit wasn’t worth the gamble, the Big Ten decided otherwise.

Wednesday’s announcement that the conference is entering a partnership with the Detroit Lions to host a bowl game at Ford Field provides yet another venue for the conference’s bowl-eligible teams and an annual game for area fans — a game Lions and Big Ten officials believe has a bright future.

“This Detroit opportunity is in our footprint and we’ve got a great football partner in the Detroit Lions,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. “Ford Field is a world-class, NFL facility that’s hosted a lot of great events, basketball, entertainment and football. So, as we go into this new cycle, 2014-2020, we’re proud that Detroit can be part of that.”

Questionable economic future aside, the Big Ten is betting Detroit will continue to show up for a bowl game that has seen its ups and downs throughout the years — many of those ups and downs tied to whether a Big Ten team is in the game.

The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, the game essentially being replaced by the newly created game, saw a Big Ten team only three times since it began as the Motor City Bowl in 1997.

Northwestern was the first Big Ten team to play in the game when it faced Bowling Green in 2003 while Purdue has been the only other conference team to play in Detroit, beating Central Michigan in 2007 and Western Michigan in 2011.

Attendance in those seasons was solid with the 2007 game — a 51-48 victory for Purdue — standing out with 60,624 on hand. Northwestern’s loss to Bowling Green drew more than 50,000 and Purdue’s victory in 2011 is the only game that saw decent numbers in the past five seasons — 46,177.

Some have argued attendance is driven by fans of the Mid-American Conference, specifically fans of Central Michigan and Western Michigan. But the numbers say otherwise.

When the Big Ten is in town, attendance has surged.

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There are some exceptions. Central Michigan’s victory over Middle Tennessee State in 2006 drew 54,113, the second-most in the history of the game. But last season, when the Chippewas faced Western Kentucky, the number dropped to 23,310, the worst in the history of the game.

But Lions officials feel the presence of the Big Ten — along with what reportedly will be the Atlantic Coast Conference — will turn that number around.

“We’re in final discussions with another very dynamic collegiate conference that we expect to join the mix in the next couple of weeks,” Lions president Tom Lewand said.

That is, no doubt, an upgrade from the MAC and what often became an opponent from the Sun Belt Conference, which has a secondary tie-in to play the Little Caesars Bowl if a Big Ten team is not eligible.

Whether the new plans turn into a successful game remains to be seen, but if those organizing the bowl have their way, it will certainly include the presence of Big Ten teams on a more consistent basis.

Much of that depends on how successful each Big Ten team is considering the Detroit game will likely land in the third tier of the conference’s new system for placing bowl teams. In 2014, a straight pecking order will be abandoned in an effort to keep the same teams from playing in the same bowl games over and over again.

In other words, Nebraska wouldn’t play in the Capital One Bowl two straight seasons, as it has the past two.

“It’s counterproductive to send the same teams to the same bowls in consecutive or four out of five years,” Delany said when agreements for the Holiday and Kraft Fight Hunger bowls were announced. “Someone will obviously select first, but they may or may not get the team they want because that team may have been in that region two years in a row. We’re trying to make sure there’s freshness.”

Better odds

Could that help the Detroit game land a Big Ten team? Possibly, but it’s not a lock.

It would still sit behind games in the top two tiers — Capital One, Outback and Holiday in the first tier with Gator/Music City, Kraft Fight Hunger and Pinstripe in the second. It would be joined by a combination of the Heart of Dallas and Armed Forces bowls in the final tier, but could be selected ahead of those games based on eligible teams instead of being stuck in a specific spot in the order.

Those tiers are not official yet and not all of the bowl tie-ins have been announced, but that is a likely breakdown of what the landscape should look like in 2014.

Throw in the Rose Bowl and that a Big Ten team will play in the Orange Bowl at least three times from 2014-26, and the pickings get slim near the bottom.

However, in each of the last three seasons, the Big Ten has had no fewer than eight teams win at least six games, though last year both Ohio State and Penn State were on probation, taking the number of eligible teams from nine to seven. But Rutgers and Maryland join the Big Ten in 2014 and odds are expansion will continue at some point.

That means the pool grows and the chances of Detroit getting a Big Ten team grows with it.

It’s exactly what officials are banking on.

“(The Big Ten) has put their confidence in Ford Field,” Lewand said, “and in the community of Detroit as a destination in the reconstituted bowl landscape that we’re going to see in 2014 and beyond.”

If that landscape includes more Iowa, Purdue and Illinois instead of Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Akron, then all the better for the bowl game without a name but a definite home and a plan for the future.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com
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