There’s a general assumption by much of the public that the dominant force of home entertainment in the future will be video streaming. Whether it’s viewing TV shows via the Internet instead of cable or picking out movies for the evening, streaming enables immediate access to content with video quality that is continuously improving. Thus, many investors earlier this year were pushing Netflix to move away from its cash cow DVD plan business and instead emphasize its streaming service. In fact, a popular view on Wall Street seemed to be that Netflix’s largest problem was that too many people were still using the DVD-by-mail service that had made the company so dominant in the first place. So, the opening salvo was when Netflix separated its DVD and streaming plans with higher prices (with the intended effect being that subscribers would choose dropping the DVD plan). That move was about as popular as Santa Claus at an Eagles game. Still, Netflix pressed on by subsequently announcing that it would completely split off its DVD business into a separate company called Qwikster, which would force customers to create different accounts for each service. The public immediately vomited all over this plan and the investors that were pushing Netflix to go full bore into streaming started crushing the company’s stock price. Finally, Netflix ended up issuing a mea culpa yesterday and reversed its decision to split the two sides of the business. A firm that had built one of the most loyal customer bases through word-of-mouth over the past decade effectively wiped out all of its goodwill reserves within a couple of months.
The problem with Netflix is that even though it pushed streaming as the future, its streaming content isn’t satisfactory in the present. There’s only a fraction of the number of movies and TV shows available on the streaming service compared to the regular DVD-by-mail, particularly new releases. As a result, consumers that once saw Netflix as a good deal started thinking that it wasn’t providing great value any longer. At the same time, Netflix customers (including me) have generally been perplexed as to why improvements in streaming and the use of DVDs need to be mutually exclusive. (To be sure, my 2-year twins use the Netflix app on our iPad all of the time to stream Sesame Street and the abominable Spanglish of Dora the Exploer, so there’s certainly a convenience factor for me personally. It’s also a testament to the late Steve Jobs that he created such intuitive products that my kids were able to figure out how to use our iPad and iPhones by the time they were about 16 months old.) Netflix gave the public a message that the DVD service was holding the streaming service back, but the reality is that one has little to do with the other. Instead, Netflix’s issue is that the streaming content still needs a ton of improvements regardless of the state of the DVD business and, more importantly, the service faces paying skyrocketing streaming rights fees to and direct competition from the movie and TV studios themselves (such as Hulu).
The Big East is the Netflix of the college sports world. It has a product (basketball) that completely built the conference and is still regarded across the nation as high quality. However, the conference knows that its weaker product (football) is the revenue driver of the future. The problem is that improving the football product isn’t that simple and really has little to do with basketball. A lot of Big East football fans would tell you that the basketball side of the conference has been holding the football side back and that’s the reason why schools like Syracuse and Pitt ended up leaving for the ACC. Therefore, the argument goes, the Big East would be served best by the football members splitting from the rest of the conference. However, this is a straw man argument similar to Netflix claiming that it needed to get rid of its DVD business in order to build its streaming business. Just because the Big East was excellent in basketball didn’t mean it caused any type of problem for its football league. If anything, the only reason why Big East football gets any ESPN coverage at all is its ties to the basketball side. The Big East’s football problems have been with the performance of its football programs themselves and a lack of a national brand name ever since Miami left for the ACC in 2003. In fact, the Big East football league was born with two left feet since it never had the one school that really mattered on the East Coast: Penn State.
Ultimately, the Big East’s presidents know this, which is why they haven’t been exactly quick to add on new football schools willy-nilly even with its league under attack and aren’t even considering a split from the Catholic members. With the Big East basketball TV contract already larger than the football TV contract (both in total amounts and on a per school basis), keeping the top basketball brand names and large markets is now more important for the whoever remains in the conference than ever (even if a lot of Big East football fans are now even more vehement in pushing for a split).
Switching to the Big 12 expansion drama for a moment (as it has a great impact on what the Big East will end up doing), I won’t believe that BYU isn’t joining the Big 12 until that league expands to 12 schools again without them. Put me in the tin foil hat category of thinking that the reason why BYU has supposedly “fallen off the Big 12 list” according to a number of reports is that DeLoss Dodds and company is trying to put public pressure on the Provo school by getting their alums all riled up. It appears the major sticking points are TV rights issues with BYUtv, which believe it or not actually receives more rights to broadcasts and rebroadcasts than the Longhorn Network. However, this all seems to be resolvable by both parties. If BYU turns down a Big 12 invite because of reruns of football games, then the LDS leaders are on LSD. BYU makes complete sense as school #10 in the Big 12 if and when Missouri leaves for the SEC.
Therefore, let’s assume for the moment that the Big East retains all of its remaining 6 football members, including but not limited to Louisville and West Virginia. With the news that the Big East now wants to go up to 12 football schools (although I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it stayed at 10), it obviously begs the question about who the league should add. These seem to be the main tiers of candidates that the Big East is looking at:
(1) Service Academies (Navy, Air Force, Army) – By all accounts, Navy, Air Force and Army are the top priorities for the Big East as football members. As I’ve mentioned previously, adding these schools would be a smart move because I believe that none of the other AQ conferences are going to remove AQ status from a league that has all 3 service academies (or even just two of them). The academies have great brand names, traveling fan bases and political protection. Of course, that’s also why they’re going to be hard to get and it’s not a guarantee that the Big East can add any of them.
(2) Classic BCS Buster (Boise State) - It warms my heart that my Big Country Conference dream of a football-only league combining the Big East with the top non-AQ schools from the west is starting to seem plausible with the Providence crowd looking to add Boise State. (The schools in that original Big Country Conference post will need to change, but the concept remains the same.) Boise State is in a bind since the Pac-12 will never accept it due to academic and cultural reasons while the Big 12 doesn’t seem to be seriously interested, either. Meanwhile, the Big East is seeking to strengthen its AQ credentials as much as possible (even though I personally don’t believe the league’s bid is truly in danger of being taken away after 2013, which is when the current BCS cycle concludes). Thus, the only BCS option for Boise State appears to be the Big East and the Big East’s best option to add some national cache seems to be Boise State, which looks like a horrific geographic fit on paper but really isn’t that bad if it’s a football-only membership. Football really isn’t the killer on travel costs since it’s only a handful of trips every year – it’s the non-football schools that bear the brunt of travel issues. Let’s say that the Big East adds Air Force as a football-only member and a couple of Texas-based schools (which will be discussed in a moment) to create a western division. That cuts down the geographic concerns of Boise State a bit further for football and the school could look to place its other sports in the WCC or WAC. Karl Benson, the WAC commissioner, has already stated that he’d be open to discussing a non-football arrangement for the former full member Broncos. This seems like a long-shot for the Big East, but Boise State would be the one potential addition that would truly move the needle nationally, so John Marinatto needs to try it.
(3) Inside the Footprint (Central Florida, Temple) – Most conferences are looking for new markets when considering expansion candidates. However, the Big East is a bit different because it’s never had an issue with markets themselves, but rather the lack of the ability to deliver such markets. Therefore, the Big East doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) have the same issues with potentially “double dipping” in many of its home markets since the conference may need to do so in order to even hope to deliver them. Enter UCF and Temple, which by a number of accounts appear to be the two most likely and immediate all-sports additions to the Big East as the interest seems to be reciprocal between the schools and the league.
In the case of UCF, it’s a massive school in a football recruiting stronghold that would prevent South Florida from being a complete geographic outlier in the conference. Personally, I see UCF’s ceiling as basically being another version of USF. I’ll always be skeptical that either of those schools can breakthrough in one of the most competitive college football fan markets in the country with the presence of Florida and Florida State casting overwhelming shadows along with Miami (who I believe a lot of conference realignment observers seem to be mistakenly underrating in terms of long-term staying power) not too far away. However, the Big East is going to have a tough time to find any school that’s going to be considered #1 or even #2 in any market of substantial size, anyway, so doubling down on the Florida market is a fairly reasonable approach.
For Temple, it’s a matter of location, location, location. The Philadelphia market is obviously an attraction on paper and, maybe more importantly, it’s virtually impossible to position yourself as a Northeastern football conference without at least some presence in the state of Pennsylvania (which has gone out the door with Pitt to the ACC for the time being). Temple has made a ton of strides with the financial support of its football program since it was ousted as a football-only member of the Big East several years ago and has a lot of basketball tradition. At the same time, the objections that Villanova have had (and may still have) to Temple entering as an all-sports member are likely going to go be the wayside (or at least ignored by the other Big East members) when the very survival of the conference itself is in jeopardy. I’m someone that really respects Villanova as an institution (great academics with a marquee basketball program), but the school has had chances to jump up to AQ status for football that around 60 other football programs would KILL for yet they’ve never grabbed the proverbial bull by horns. It has always seemed that Villanova considering a move up from Division I-AA status to Division I-A was simply about protecting its basketball program as opposed to actually investing in football, so now the school is going to have to live with the long-term consequences of its slow actions by probably having to let in (or maybe more appropriately, be forced to live with) a direct competitor for all sports in its own backyard.
(4) Yellow Roses of the Big East (SMU, Houston) – If Boise State and/or Army don’t end up joining the Big East as football-only members, then I expect SMU and Houston to be next on the list as potential all-sports candidates. I’ve really been warming up to SMU lately despite its taint of Craig James, as it’s a great academic school in a top-tier market. If the Big East basically believes all of the C-USA candidates are effectively on the same tier of quality (and I think that’s essentially what the league is thinking), then SMU starts looking pretty attractive as an overall institution. As a school, there are a lot of similarities there to the former Big East member that never played a Big East game TCU (albeit not with the same recent football success). Houston doesn’t bring in great academics (which is a mark against them), but fits the urban profile of the rest of the Big East as a similar school as Louisville, Cincinnati, USF and potential member USF along with bringing in another large market and recruiting territory. It also helps that Houston has been fairly competent on the football field lately and can point to excellent tradition in basketball.
(5) So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance (East Carolina, Memphis) – Speaking to a lot of Big East football fans, it seems that East Carolina is a common “people’s choice” as an expansion candidate. It makes sense on some levels as it’s a program that has fairly strong attendance and fan support for a non-AQ school as well as being unequivocal in its desire to join the Big East. However, I get the impression that the Big East looks at East Carolina in the same manner that the SEC looks at West Virginia: despite a geographic fit and solid fan base, those factors aren’t enough to overcome what’s perceived to be a small market (unlike a national name like Nebraska or Boise State). East Carolina is arguably the best pure football school on paper out of the Big East candidates besides Boise State, but the Pirates aren’t so far ahead of the other C-USA candidates that the Providence crowd would choose them over schools located in better markets or have stronger academics.
Meanwhile, there might not be a school in the country that has had worse timing in terms of going through its ugliest stretch of football performance (or non-performance) in its history than Memphis. If the Memphis football program had ANY type of pulse, it would be near the top of the list of Big East expansion candidates with its strong basketball fan support (which could conceivably bleed over to football), FedEx corporate ties, a Liberty Bowl tie-in and traditional rivalries with Louisville and Cincinnati. Instead, the Tigers are almost certainly going to be relegated to non-AQ status for quite awhile.
Call me crazy, but put me in the camp as someone that believes that the Big East will continue to survive as an AQ conference in some shape or form. Notre Dame certainly wants the league to live (although not enough to actually join the Big East as a football member) and the other AQ conferences aren’t really that hot to either destroy the Big East completely or kick it out of the AQ club. Continuing to grant a BCS bowl bid to the Big East champ is chump change to the rest of the AQ conferences compared to the political heat that could result from throwing out a league that has any service academies and large flagship universities in the Northeast. It’s imperative to the Big Ten, SEC and other AQ conferences that the BCS system itself is preserved, which likely means that they need to keep the Big East in the fold.
(Image from moviefone)