It’s called brand dilution — where the brand loses its association with what made it successful in the first place.

Let’s start with BMW…

BMW invented the sports sedan, starting with the legendary 2002 model in the ‘60s. It wasn’t a sports car…it had a usable back seat. It wasn’t the most powerful car…the first 2002 had only 108 horsepower. What the 2002 had that made it different from other sedans of its era is that it was fun to drive.

“Fun to drive” is what made BMWs…BMWs. The 2002’s successor — the 3 Series — has for decades been the benchmark for other luxury manufacturers targeting the sports sedan segment. Many tried — Mercedes with its C-Class, Infiniti with its G, Lexus with its IS, etc. But they never could quite achieve the 3 Series “feel.” It was a car that turned “turned on a dime” — no slack — and you actually felt the road. It was a car that took tight corners quickly without a sweat. It was The Ultimate Driving Machine.

(This was very different from my dad’s generation’s idea of a luxury car. Their ideal was a “living room on wheels” that just glided over bumps and you could steer with just a finger. Lincoln Town Car was the last of this breed. But back to today…)

As an avid follower of the auto industry, I knew that a new 3-series was coming out this year. And with my current car’s lease running out, I was anxious to try it.

Was I disappointed! The 3 Series has gone soft. The steering is light…you don’t feel the road like you used to. The car isn’t as composed rounding corners or making quick lane changes. It’s bigger and more luxurious though. Congratulations BMW…you just built a German Lexus. (Not to knock Lexus…a fine car, but not one that gets driving enthusiasts excited.)

Why would BMW walk away from what made it a highly profitable auto maker? Because it wasn’t profitable enough, apparently. BMW wasn’t satisfied with having a dedicated core of driving enthusiasts paying a premium for their cars…they wanted more volume. They wanted to appeal to consumers who avoided BMWs because their steering was “too firm” and the ride was “too hard.”

And y’know what? So far, it’s working. Worldwide, BMW sales are up despite a European market that’s way down. But it takes time for reality to catch up with perception, and I suspect BMW will pay the price for its brand dilution “down the road.”

Now, what could this possibly have to do with the Big Ten Conference??? It’s the same principle…

The Big Ten’s roots go back to the late 1800s. Its teams compete in 26 sports. But when I think of the Big Ten, I think most of football

To me, the Big Ten is two Midwestern teams battling it out on a chilly autumn day. It’s smash mouth, mud in the trenches, grind-it-out power football. To me, it’s Minnesota vs. Iowa, Michigan State vs. Purdue, Illinois vs. Wisconsin…and, most of all, it’s Michigan vs. Ohio State (Saturday, Noon Eastern, ABC).

I’m not saying the Big Ten is the best football conference…it’s far from that right now! But it’s my football conference. I’m from Chicago, attended two Big Ten schools (Minnesota and Northwestern) and have lived for the past 25 years in the home of a third — Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Go Blue!)

To me (and I suspect millions of others) the Big Ten is the Midwest. Period. And it was that until 1990, when the Big Ten added Penn State.

Penn State? Run by that Brooklyn guy Joe Paterno? Smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania? That has never worked for me as a Big Ten school. But now, it gets worse…

Yesterday, the University of Maryland accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten. And Rutgers — 35 miles from Manhattan — is expected to accept today. Maryland? Manhattan? (New Jersey, actually). I have nothing against those places, but Ohio is as far east as I can accept in the Big Ten.

Now, I do realize that these are just the highly subjective rantings of a Big Ten football fan. But there are also very objective reasons why expanding the Big Ten eastward is a bad idea…

For one thing, the expansion up to 12 teams (with Nebraska’s addition last year) prompted the creation of two divisions within the Big Ten. Which means (for example) it won’t be until 2016 that we see Illinois here in Ann Arbor again. Damn!

Teams will have to travel greater distances. The Big Ten used to extend from Iowa to Ohio…now it’s Nebraska to New Jersey. That’s a lot more miles, and remember, these are college students we’re talking about. (Aren’t they?)

Then there’s the dilution of traditional rivalries. Somehow, Rutgers vs. Iowa doesn’t have the same ring as, say, Michigan vs. Minnesota.

So why do it? Simple…it’s the almighty dollar doing its thing again…

Y’see the Big Ten owns its own cable network — BTN. And it’s printing money — around $250 million in revenue this year. And adding schools mean adding markets — something every cable network wants. In this case, adding Maryland and Rutgers adds the Washington, DC and New York markets…an estimated 20 million cable subscribers.

More subscribers, more dollars. Simple. But is that all the Big Ten stands for??? I guess so.

In the short term, brand dilution works. It’s working for BMW. It’ll work for the Big Ten. But what will we be saying 10, 20 years from now?

What I’m proud of is: Radio gets this. For example, it’s been years since I’ve heard a radio General Manager suggest adding more gold to his CHR station, “to build those 25 to 54 demographics.” Radio managers understand that their stations have to stand for something in listeners’ minds. And that’s in a business where it’s a helluva lot easier to blow up a brand and start over than say…cars. Or colleges.