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.
(Image from The Sports Bank)