Posts Tagged ‘Big East Split’

When I was attending DePaul for law school a decade ago (it makes me feel ancient to say that) and the Blue Demon athletic program was toiling away in Conference USA, the university looked at joining the Big East as an aspirational goal in the same way that Rutgers looked at the Big Ten or Utah looked at the old Pac-10 for many years.  The Big East was the home of the schools that DePaul either saw as urban Catholic school peers (such as Vincentian counterpart St. John’s) or academic leaders (Notre Dame and Georgetown).  When Conference Realignment circa 2003 reared its head and opened up spots in the Big East, DePaul couldn’t run to that league fast enough.  While the non-Catholic Big East schools at the time such as Syracuse and Pitt were attractive partners in terms of pure athletics, it was the Catholic school base that was DePaul’s draw.  The belief was that no matter what happened, DePaul would be linked to those major Catholic schools going forward.

Now DePaul is moving forward with Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence and Marquette in breaking off from the Big East and forming a new basketball conference.  There are some formalities that need to take place on figuring out the process of how this will actually occur, but it’s conceptually a done deal.  I’m not someone that was ever a large believer in the inevitability of a split between the Catholic schools and football members of the Big East.  Ever since the initial ACC raid of the Big East in 2003 of Miami, Virginia Tech and Syracuse, the hybrid model of the league was still a net positive for all of its members even if a lot of fans complained about it.  The Catholic schools benefited from having a power conference image via the Big East’s AQ status in the BCS system despite not playing FBS football, while the all-sports members got direct basketball access to the major markets of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington.  They were all worth more together than they were worth apart.

The equation changed with Notre Dame, Rutgers and Louisville leaving, though.  The network effects of those brand names (well, at least with respect to Louisville and Notre Dame for basketball) coupled with the Catholic schools were eradicated.  With the value of the Big East’s new potential TV deal plummeting in the marketplace due to defections, the Catholic schools believed that they weren’t receiving a clear financial benefit from the hybrid anymore.  Maybe they would still a little bit more by sticking with the Big East, but it wouldn’t be enough to make it worth it to continue to be subject to the whims of football-driven realignment.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: stability can trump even money in conference realignment.  The Big East Catholic schools finally got tired of getting dragged through the mud on account of a sport that they didn’t even play at the top level.  Even an extra $1 million per year in TV money for staying in the hybrid is fairly small in the scheme of things if you have a choice between controlling your own league or other conferences poaching your league controlling you.

Ultimately, I believe the new basketball league using the Big East Catholic schools as a basis will be successful within the parameters of what can be reasonably expected out of non-football conference.  If the new league moves forward with poaching Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10, who have apparently already agreed to join with St. Louis University, Dayton, Creighton and VCU under consideration for the 10th spot or possibly 3 spots to form a 12-team setup), then it’s an attractive proposition to the TV networks.  ESPN, for example, can throw $20 million to $30 million per year at this conference (which would be less than what ESPN currently pays the Big East for basketball in a pitiful contract that was signed for a rock bottom amount in the mid-2000s) and that would constitute a pay raise for the Catholics on a per school basis.  It’s not exactly a stretch to believe that ESPN would rather do that to get the bulk of the Big Monday games that they would have wanted, anyway, while completing avoiding the need to pay for Big East football games that the network doesn’t have any use for.

To be sure, the Catholic schools would not have bolted if the Big East had the composition that it had when this year’s college football season started.  A split was always a very last resort and that moment came when Louisville got invited to the ACC.  Staying in the hybrid for the sake of continuing to play UConn was no longer enough (even if new incoming members such as Memphis were strong in basketball).

The one good thing out of all of this is that the Big East Catholic schools will be going from a league with no institutional identity to a new conference with as strong of an institutional identity as any other out there.  Institutional fit is a hallmark of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and other stable conferences and that will serve the new league well.

This Big East basketball season is going to take on the air of the last year of the Southwest Conference, where no one knows whether many of schools will ever play each other again.  I’ll have more on this as the story continues to develop.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

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Earlier this week, we had a flurry of concrete conference realignment news crammed into a 48-hour period, and then we went cold turkey (no pun intended) over the Thanksgiving holiday.  That has left Twitter rumors to fill the void and potentially affected fan bases on edge (culminating in Cincinnati fans chanting, “ACC!” when they saw the school’s president walk through the stands).  For what it’s worth, I take extra care to not pass along Tweets with every single realignment rumor that comes my way (and believe me, I pretty much get them all ).  (For those that aren’t following as of yet, my Twitter handle is @frankthetank111.) My personal filter is to make sure that the original Tweeter has some real reason or connection to know what he/she claims to know and/or apply my own view of plausibility.  As most of my regular readers know, I’m not a believer that a world of 4 16-team superconferences are inevitable (at least not in the short term) or that the ACC and/or Big East are one or two losses from complete destruction.  I certainly don’t see a rush by the Big Ten or SEC to get to 16 members in this round of conference realignment.  These are interesting Armageddon scenarios, but I tend to believe in a more logical downward pressure in the conference ranks, or as people say colloquially, “S**t rolls downhill.”  Maybe the ACC will lose some more schools, but that league will backfill from the Big East, who in turn will backfill from Conference USA and/or the Mountain West, and so on and so forth.

Without any concrete news, we’re basically left with trying to parse out what is legitimately plausible and whether the proverbial smoke around certain topics indicates either a real fire or just some dude in his basement toking.  From my vantage point, there are two themes coming together that have relevance:

(1) ACC Mindset Change and a Surge of Support for Louisville – In my last couple of posts, I stated that I would bet on Connecticut getting an invite to the ACC.  If the ACC follows its prior actions and academic and TV market criteria for expansion candidates, UConn would be near a 100% lock.  As a result, the mere fact that there is even a debate about Louisville going to the ACC at all (much less Louisville being ahead in the race, which a number of observers are claiming) indicates that there’s a major mindset change in the conference brewing (or at least some schools outside of the Duke/UNC old-line faction that are throwing their weight around, particularly Florida State).

Whether it’s right or wrong, the widespread perception is that Louisville would be the “football smart” move for the ACC and anything other than that could lead to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and/or others bolting to the warm arms of Texas and the Big 12.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t believe that Florida State would leave for the Big 12 all, but the ACC obviously can’t take any chances with its most important football member.

One interesting example of Twitter having fans on edge was a Tweet from Brian Miller, a Tallahassee Democrat reporter that said that the ACC wouldn’t even make a choice between Louisville and UConn, but rather add both of them along with Cincinnati* to create a 16-team conference.  By the time that Tweet spread like wildfire, Miller had removed it from his timeline.  Time will tell whether that was removed because it couldn’t be backed up or the information was too sensitive for the reporter’s source to put it out there for public consumption immediately.  The ACC may very well have the most incentive to grow to 16 first to create a perception of strength in numbers (even if it might not look like the most financially lucrative move).

(* Much like the athletic departments at Louisville and UConn, I have a ton of respect for what Cincinnati has been able to do on-the-field during its time in the Big East.  The Bearcats have arguably been the most consistent football program in the circa 2005 version of the conference, so it would be sweet justice to see them land softly.  We’ll see if that soft landing actually happens, though.)

Regardless, Louisville and the school’s surrogates are getting the message out that they are the best football move for the ACC (despite being a basketball school by any other measure).  The wants and needs of fans rarely matter to commissioners and university presidents in conference realignment, but if enough Florida State fans are out for blood (similar to how Texas A&M fans pounded their administration to push for a move to the SEC), this might be one instance where the fans win out if Louisville ends up getting the ACC invite.

(2) Prospect of Big East Catholic Schools Splitting Off – For many, many, many years, one of the easiest reflex responses that I’ve had in conference realignment discussions was that the Big East football schools and non-football Catholic members wouldn’t split into a separate leagues.  Up to this point, it made zero financial sense for either side – the value of the Catholic schools were enhanced by the presence of Louisville, UConn and Notre Dame (even without Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia) while the football members needed the traditional brand names and major media markets of the non-football schools.  While the two sides might not have liked each other, they were worth more together than they were worth apart.

Notre Dame has left the Big East for the ACC as a non-football member, though, and at least one of Louisville or UConn is heading out the door possibly as soon as next week.  Heck, even Cincinnati might be heading out with them.  Going forward, it may no longer be truism that the Catholic schools would make more TV money staying with the football members, in which case Georgetown and company are likely wondering whether it’s worth it to deal with constant football-related defections in a hybrid league when they could have a league all to themselves and be considered power players in the non-football marketplace that they inhabit.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated indicated that there have been informal discussions of a nationwide basketball conference (“think Georgetown to Gonzaga”).  At the same time, the Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal has brought up the possibility of the Catholic schools voting to dissolve the Big East entirely and go off on their own, which would be possible when Louisville and/or UConn leave since they’ll have the voting majority in place to do it (as the new members such as UCF and Houston don’t have voting rights yet and any defecting members won’t have votes, either).

I could spend hours dreaming up national basketball conference scenarios (all of which would include Pepperdine because visiting that school is like visiting a beach resort), but my semi-educated guess is that in the event of a Big East split, the Catholic schools would team up with the top handful of Atlantic 10 members to form a new league.  For discussion purposes only, it would look something along the lines of the following:

Georgetown
Villanova
St. John’s
Seton Hall
Providence
DePaul
Marquette
Xavier
Dayton
St. Louis
Duquense
Butler

It’s not unfathomable that ESPN could step in and pay that type of league the same amount that the Big East Catholics would have received in a new Big East hybrid TV contract or more if only to keep top college basketball brand names such as Georgetown and Villanova under the Worldwide Leader’s control.  From my vantage point, I see a lot more Big Monday-worthy matchups coming out of that league compared to a new Big East without Louisville and/or UConn.

Once again, I have never been a Big East split believer or proponent, but the latest conference realignment moves could be upending the conventional wisdom.

In any event, there’s a full slate of spectacular college football games to be played on-the-field on Saturday.  Even as a conference realignment aficionado, here’s to hoping that we all can concentrate on the games themselves for a day.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

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