Ever wonder why the Big Ten remains one of the richest and most powerful football conferences despite an on-field product that has undoubtedly backslid in recent seasons?
Look in the mirror.
You, the Big Ten fan, are the biggest reason why the conference continues to be relevant. You're why the Big Ten Network has been such a hit. You're why bowl games are lining up to form tie-ins with the Big Ten for 2014 and beyond. You're why the Big Ten's next television deal likely will trump all others we've seen. You're why the gap between the Big Ten and the SEC in the marketplace is a lot narrower than it is on the field.
Big Ten football programs know this, but they haven't always shown their appreciation as much as they could. Each program is different, but transparency hasn't been a huge strength around the conference.
Things are beginning to change this spring.
Several programs are opening their doors to fans. All 15 of Minnesota's spring workouts are open for the third straight year. New Purdue coach Darrell Hazell opened most of the team's practices this spring to the public. Wisconsin fans can attend practices Saturday and next Friday before the spring game April 20. Ohio State holds its student appreciation day at Saturday's practice (remember this photo from last year's event?). Northwestern has an open practice Saturday, while Illinois had one last week in Chicago (the Illini also have a meet-and-greet the week of their spring game).
The latest outreach move comes from Iowa, which announced Thursday that it will hold an open practice April 14 in West Des Moines. This has been in the works for a while but finally is official. The Hawkeyes will work out at Valley High School's stadium, and although fans need tickets, the event is free.
Open practices are extremely rare for Iowa, a program that values its fans but certainly doesn't rank high for transparency. Coach Kirk Ferentz, who once coached under Bill Belichick, prefers to keep things behind closed doors, and information coming out of the football building is, well, very limited.
After an extremely disappointing 2012 season, Iowa needs to generate some buzz and connect with its fans in a key part of the state. Although Iowa's open practice won't conflict with Iowa State's spring game, as initially reported, Iowa can no longer dismiss Iowa State as the other team in the state after recent years.
As The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Mike Hlas wrote last month:
The Hawkeyes are wide-awake to the realization they can no longer take anything or anyone for granted. Yes, Kinnick Stadium will be sold out (or close to it) for the unforeseeable future. Game Day at Kinnick is still the social event of the season for tens of thousands of Iowans. But after you’ve gone 4-8, slippage is always a distinct possibility. And the Hawkeyes need to start winning consistently again before they can assume they’re the frontrunners for the best high school players in the state, especially from central Iowa.
In a news release announcing the open practice, Ferentz said, "This is an opportunity for us to reach out to our Central and Western Iowa Hawkeye fans that support us so loyally during the fall in Kinnick Stadium."
It's an encouraging sign, and spring is the perfect time for these initiatives. There are no games around the corner, and the paranoia about important information leaking out isn't nearly as strong. And shouldn't be.
Spring games are nice, but programs can do a little more for the fans who do so much in the fall. Several Big Ten programs are coming to this realization.