Back in 2010 and 2011 when the Big 12 was under siege by the then-Pac-10, Big Ten and SEC and appeared to be on the verge of collapse, basketball blue blood Kansas was looking like it could left out of the power conference structure. Circumstances were so dire at that point that Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and other Big 12 schools without any realistic prospects of moving to another power league actually approached the Big East to join if the worst case scenario came to fruition. It was a scary thought to a lot of fans: if Kansas could be left behind, then football is truly all that matters and basketball must have virtually no value in conference realignment. The 10 points (out of a total of 100) that I assigned to “Basketball Brand Value” in the original Big Ten Expansion Index was looking like a massive overweighting of hoops back then.
To the extent that it was already clear, the maxim was set in stone: “Football is everything in conference realignment.” Discussions about basketball value went by the wayside over the past couple of years as conference realignment discussions focused intensely upon how to maximize football dollars. Now, to be sure, much of this made (and still makes) sense for the power conferences. First tier TV contracts for college football dwarf those for college basketball while the top conferences (via the bowl system) are able to funnel postseason football money directly to their own coffers instead of having to deal with the NCAA for basketball postseason dollars.
However, any hard and fast rule is bound to be broken. As the Big East started suffering from a disintegration over the past 18 months that was originally prescribed for the Big 12, the seven non-football playing Catholic members of that league decided to break off and form a basketball-focused conference. There was quite a bit of skepticism that this could be financially viable considering that the Atlantic 10 signed a new deal worth only $350,000 per school per year (compared to the $1.3 million per year that each of the Big East schools were receiving for basketball under the current ESPN contract that’s about to expire). The perception was that football was propping the “Catholic 7” up and they would be taking a substantial haircut by splitting off from the gridiron portion of the conference.
Then, the TV offers came in. The Catholic 7 received an offer from Fox worth $3 million to $4 million per school per year just for men’s basketball, while the remnants of the Big East will be getting about $2 million per school per year for both football and basketball. Think about it this way: Cincinnati, which has been to 2 BCS bowls and was seconds away from making it to the football national championship game in 2009, is going to end up making 50% to 100% less TV money for football and basketball than crosstown rival Xavier will be making from basketball alone (assuming all of the reports are correct that Xavier will be joining the Catholic 7)… and Xavier is going to end up being in the conference named “The Big East”, too.
If the Big East/Catholic 7 TV contract situation hasn’t changed how you view conference realignment overall, it should. This should be a glaring warning signal any conference that is not named the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC: football in and of itself isn’t going to get leagues paid and they better start paying attention to basketball if they want to maximize revenue. For instance, if I was running UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and/or Temple, I would start questioning what the point is of having massive capital expenditures and operating expenses for football when nearby schools are getting paid more than my athletic department based on perceived basketball prowess. Now, schools like UConn or Cincinnati are still be positioning themselves to get into the ACC or Big 12, so they obviously can’t downshift in football, but maybe they would be better off creating a public university version of the Catholic 7. For instance, take UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Temple as a base and then add on UMass, Old Dominion and Charlotte as all-sports schools and Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) and Wichita State (and maybe a couple of other public schools like Rhode Island) as basketball members. Navy might actually prefer to be a football-only member in that type of league compared to the Big East as currently configured, as well. That’s just throwing a list of schools against the wall, but what’s clear to me is that very high basketball value of UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Temple is getting severely diluted by the rest of the “new” Big East that won’t be called the Big East anymore. (For the purposes of this post, I’ll define the Big East football schools left behind as the “Big X”.) UConn getting a fraction of what Providence is receiving in terms of TV money ought to be unacceptable to the people in Storrs (even if the Huskies’ long-term plan is to get into the ACC at all costs), so it’s time to start rethinking the conventional wisdom of the role football plays in conference realignment.
What we have seen over the past 3 years is a lot of moves on paper, but the overall effect being more of the same. The power club when the BCS system was created in 1998 consisted of 6 conferences and 63 schools (including independent Notre Dame). 15 years later, the power club now has 5 conferences and 65 schools, with 3 schools moving up (Louisville, TCU and Utah) and 1 school moving down (Temple, who was kicked out of the power structure due to performance as opposed to anything related to realignment). That is a net change of 2 schools over the course of 15 years. Essentially, every single school that isn’t already in a power conference is praying for a winning lottery ticket with their respective football programs with those odds. As any financial adviser could tell you, though, pinning your dreams on winning the lottery isn’t a viable investment plan. When the Big East became too filled with “riff raff”, the entire league got kicked out of the power club instead of being integrated. It’s clear that the power club doesn’t want to get much larger (if at all), so everyone outside of that top tier needs to start looking at other ways to maximize revenue.
While basketball is much less of a concern to the power conferences at face value, consider which school is the top target for both the Big Ten and SEC (the 2 richest and most powerful conferences): North Carolina. It certainly isn’t due to UNC’s prowess at football or avoiding academic fraud. To the contrary, UNC is a basketball blue blood, and more importantly, Tar Heels basketball games are so critically important in the state of the North Carolina that a conference TV network carrying such games can effectively charge whatever carriage rate that it wants in that market. Think of the Big Ten’s addition of Maryland, as well. Fan enthusiasm for Terps football has been tepid lately, but part of what the conference is banking on is that there is a critical mass of interest in Maryland basketball where it can get the Big Ten Network basic carriage in the Washington, DC and Baltimore markets.
For conferences that don’t have their own TV networks, then the main way to monetize expansion is through first tier football TV contracts. In contrast, the “market” model of conference TV networks means that basketball needs to be taken into account more. (See the BTN garnering its highest-ever rated month in prime time in January based on the strength of the hoops league this year.) At the same time, the number of strong football brand names that are willing to move is pretty low right now. In 2010, everyone in the old Big 12 that had Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M, everyone in the Big East that had Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville, and the ultimate hammer of Notre Dame was conceivably on the table. Now, the biggest football brand name that seems to be possibly available is Florida State, but there’s a feeling that they’re just rattling sabres about their supposed dissatisfaction with the ACC (where they’d be happy to move to the Big Ten or SEC, but don’t dislike the ACC enough to go to the Big 12). As a result, it simply might not be realistic (or possible) for conferences that are in acquisition mode to add much football prowess even if that’s their top priority. Thus, those leagues have to look to other factors such as monetizing basketball, which is very much possible (if not completely necessary) under the conference network model. Football might bring in the largest audiences for conference networks, but basketball is what keeps the lights on and provides enough content to justify basic carriage.
Make no mistake about it: all things being equal, of course conferences would want top football programs over top basketball programs. There’s nothing that generates more revenue than a power football school. However, what people need to start questioning is the misguided logic that any football program is more valuable than any basketball program. The Catholic 7 has shown that this isn’t the case at all. Athletic departments across the country need to take note in trying to figure out how they want to position themselves in the new college sports landscape.
(Image from AP)