Archive for January, 2013

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby came out of a meeting with his conference’s athletic directors on Monday with some standard general non-news about any possible expansion plans.  However, he reinforced some reports that the Big 12 was evaluating alliances with different conferences, including the ACC.  Why would the Big 12 openly suggest an alliance with a conference that many believe would be the primary target for a raid?

People that relish in ACC Armageddon rumors point out that proposed alliances have led to raids in the past, such as the old Big 8 and Southwest Conference discussing that scenario (and the Big 8 subsequently taking Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor from the SWC) and the Big East and ACC exploring the same (leading to the ACC in a decade-long bludgeoning of the Big East).  The ACC Armageddonistas surmise that the Big 12 is following the same playbook of luring Jim Swofford to hand over sensitive conference information in “alliance talks” and then stab them in the back in a few months with a raid.  Of course, that assumes that ACC schools want to join the Big 12.

Certainly, there’s a chance that the leadership of the Big 12 is leveraging the prospect of an alliance publicly while engaging on a reconnaissance mission behind closed doors to poach the likes of Florida State or Clemson.  More likely, though, is that the Big 12 can’t expand with anyone that they deem worth having (according to Bowlsby, schools that would be worth in excess of $26.2 million per year each in additional revenue) on their own.  The Big 12 is in a position where it can’t be “proactive” – a school such as Florida State isn’t going to be open to the Big 12’s overtures without the Big Ten and SEC first (a) confirming that neither wants to invite the Seminoles themselves and (b) raiding other ACC members to the point where staying in the league would be unpalatable.

As a result, the Big 12 can’t be the first mover here no matter how much their fans may want them to be.  That’s why the news out of that conference over the past month has been about alliances with the ACC and finding ways to change NCAA rules so that they can hold a conference championship game with only 10 teams.  The University of Texas might have leverage with other conferences as an individual school, but the Big 12 as an overall entity has much less leverage than what many conference realignment observers seem to believe.

The dilemma is that the ACC schools that the Big Ten and SEC most likely want in expansion happen to be the ones that are least likely to move.  I’m often accused of having Big Ten bias as an Illinois alum (by the way, the least 3 weeks of the basketball season have been excruciating), but I’ve been pretty consistent over the past couple of years in stating that Jim Delany doesn’t have complete poaching power over everyone in the ACC.  Virginia and North Carolina are the real potential prizes for the Big Ten and it’s probably the same for the SEC.  (Football-focused fans often see Virginia Tech and North Carolina State as the most likely targets for the SEC out of the current ACC membership, but make no mistake that UNC and UVA are ultimately the most valuable additions as old money academically elite flagship institutions.)  The problem is that neither UNC nor UVA really fit well in either the Big Ten or SEC – they are too Southern to be really desire being in the Northern-based Big Ten and too wine-and-cheese to enjoy being in the SEC.  There is also a large split between the academically-minded leaders of these institutions that would prefer the Big Ten while T-shirt fans would want the SEC.  The ACC provides the balance of being Southern and the perception of having an academically-oriented league (never mind the fake grades for athletes in Chapel Hill) that schools can’t find anywhere else, which will make it very hard for either UNC or UVA to leave.  (Count Georgia Tech and even Florida State in that equation, too.)  In essence, UNC and UVA are to the ACC what Texas and Oklahoma are to the Big 12: the league lives as long as both of those are schools are still there (and those schools know it).

So, that’s where I see the threats of the ACC becoming completely coming apart end up failing.  UNC, in particular, has Texas-esque influence (even if it’s more perceived than real) in the ACC, and the actions of Deloss Dodds and the Longhorns have shown that power and big dog status can be even more important as making the most TV money from a conference.  (Notre Dame feels the same way.)  As a result, the thought that UNC and UVA are going to bolt because they are scared that the ACC will collapse doesn’t hold water with me.  Those 2 schools can keep the ACC together alone and they have enough powerful alums with massive pocketbooks and politicians backing them where getting more TV revenue isn’t going to carry the same weight with them as it did with Maryland.

Now, once again, I can never say never in conference realignment.  Maybe Jim Delany’s projected revenue figures for a Big 16 or Big 18 are so outrageous that he can put the smackdown on the ACC more than I’m giving the Big Ten credit for.  Maybe Mike Slive is freaked out enough about the thought of either the Big Ten or Big 12 getting into the state of Florida by adding Florida State that the SEC would take the Noles in an act of self-defense.  In either event, it’s really up to the Big Ten or SEC to make a move.  The Big 12 would then have to hope that some other valuable pieces would fall their way.  I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but the speculation will continue.

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

(Image from Atlantic Coast Conversation)

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Chip Brown from Orangebloods.com has some new nuggets indicating that the Big 12 athletic directors want to talk about expansion (with Texas seemingly being reluctant) and that Florida State could be a target. There’s really not too much new other than there will be an actual forum for Big 12 officials to discuss conference realignment issues next week (so we may get some concrete news at that point) and that the conference has moved on from its infatuation with Notre Dame. It seems obvious that the Big 12 would want Florida State. That’s in the “No s**t, Sherlock” category of revelations to me. What’s still unclear is whether Florida State wants anything to do with the Big 12. One of Brown’s Big 12 sources said himself, “If it doesn’t make sense to Florida State, then this is all a moot point.” As I said in my last post, ACC schools like their conference as a whole in terms of geography, academics, institutional fit and demographics, but don’t really like their TV contract. The Big 12 is the flip side, where those schools (other than Texas) don’t really like their conference (as evidenced by the fact that every school other than Texas that had the ability to leave for another conference on its own chose to do so), yet are happy with their new TV contract. Maryland had a tough time leaving the ACC for the Big Ten even though it was an exponentially easier decision in terms of financial gain, geography, academics and institutional fit than any potential ACC-to-Big 12 move.

That being said, I’ve learned well enough to never say never in conference realignment. Florida State might indeed be looking around and that more than qualifies as a potential major movement. What I’d like to see, though, is for the reporters covering conference realignment that are going to follow up on this Chip Brown story to ask their sources from the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and/or Big 12 some questions that seemed to get glossed over as a result of preexisting assumptions that may or may not be true:

(1) Are the reported rules that new Big Ten schools must be AAU members and new SEC schools must be in a state outside of the current conference footprint truly hard-and-fast rules? – We often hear that the Big Ten wants to only consider expansion candidates that are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which is a group of top level research institutions. However, we know that the Big Ten is clearly willing to make an exception for non-AAU member Notre Dame. We also know that while Nebraska was an AAU member when it was added by the Big Ten in 2010, that school was removed from that organization less than a year later. The Big Ten members knew full well at the time of conference expansion in 2010 that Nebraska was at risk of losing its AAU status and, in fact, Michigan and Wisconsin ended up voting to remove NU from the AAU (and those 2 votes swinging the other way would have kept them in the group).

While I believe that the Big Ten would want an AAU member in 99% of the circumstances, Notre Dame is in that 1% (and Nebraska was added with the knowledge of a strong possibility of them ending up in that tiny minority, too). As a result, the question needs to be asked as to whether a school such as Florida State would be in that 1%, as well. There is one word that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has said more than any other during the past 3 years of conference realignment discussions: demographics. Well, there are demographics for normal expansion candidates, and then there are DEMOGRAPHICS… and a school that can deliver the entire state of Florida provides the latter. The Big Ten may very well not want anything to do with Florida State (which would be a grave mistake, in my humble opinion), but I hope that reporters on the ground don’t just assume that the lack of AAU status for that school automatically nixes their candidacy.

Likewise, a number of people have advanced the argument that the SEC has a “gentleman’s agreement” among its members that it will not add a school in the same state as a current SEC member without such affected member’s approval. That is, the SEC won’t add Florida State unless Florida consents to it. However, that’s much easier to say in a vacuum when there’s nationwide conference stability. It’s a bit different if a conference that has the flagship school of Texas wants to combine it with a marquee school directly in your top football recruiting territory (right after you’ve established your own conference as the elite football league with beachheads in both Florida and Texas) or, even worse, a league with the financial, television and academic power of the Big Ten decides that it has a desire to follow its Midwestern snowbird alums into Florida. The SEC has been willing to coexist with the ACC in the state of Florida and several other Southern areas for many years, but I’m not sure if they’d be that willing to let the Big Ten or the University of Texas combine their respective powers with Florida State.

Big Ten people such as Barry Alvarez have gone on the record that the conference adding Maryland and Rutgers was more of a defensive move than a proactive one. They saw that the ACC was moving to lock up the entire Eastern seaboard and could possibly position itself to be attractive to Penn State in the near future, so Jim Delany went and split the heart of the ACC up by convincing Maryland to jump (with Rutgers willing to do anything to get off of the Big East dumpster fire) before the ACC regained its strength in the conference pecking order. (I’ve long said that if all of the conferences could negotiate their TV deals at the same time today, the ACC would be #3 behind the SEC and Big Ten. The ACC is behind the Pac-12 and Big 12 in terms of TV money solely because of timing, where the ACC signed its deal before the current sports TV rights boom while the Pac-12 and Big 12 simply lucked into getting to go to the open market at a later date.) Similarly, the SEC wouldn’t be keen on a Big Ten footprint that stretches from the New York City area down to Florida (if the Big Ten were to add schools in between like UVA, UNC and Georgia Tech) or a Big 12 that neutralizes the Texas/Florida combo advantage that the SEC gained when it added Texas A&M. The SEC might need to play defense just like the Big Ten did and bring in Florida State (which isn’t exactly being forced to take in a football leper) to keep stronger invaders out.

Bottom line for conference realignment reporters out there reading: don’t assume that the Big Ten and SEC are just going to sit on the sidelines regarding Florida State and let the Big 12 walk off with them.

(2) If numerous ACC schools want to leave and are awaiting the outcome of the conference’s lawsuit against Maryland, why did they join in that lawsuit in the first place? – Another common argument that we are seeing is that ACC schools are waiting to see whether the conference’s $50 million exit fee imposed against Maryland will be upheld in court. If that exit fee gets struck down or reduced significantly, then it would supposedly be open season by the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 in terms of raiding the ACC. This begs a simple question: if so many ACC schools truly want to get out yet are concerned about the exit fee, why are they spending craploads in legal expenses defending that exit fee?

It’s one thing if the projected conference realignment scenario resulted in a single school joining a lawsuit and then bolting shortly thereafter. That’s what Virginia Tech did in joining the Big East’s original lawsuit against the ACC in 2003 and then fleeing to the ACC itself when the Virginia legislature forced UVA to give the Hokies a lifeline. However, the line of thinking regarding the ACC seems to be more of an “opening of the floodgates” variety where multiple schools would start bailing. Having several schools going through the motions advancing a lawsuit that they privately want to fail isn’t exactly the best use of limited time, resources and money on their part.

(3) If UVA, UNC and Georgia Tech spurned overtures from the Big Ten (as Chip Brown reported), why would at least one of them (Georgia Tech) supposedly be interested in the Big 12? – According to the Chip Brown story, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech all did not have interest in the Big Ten “for now”. However, in Brown’s words, for the Big 12 to have a realistic chance with Florida State, the conference would need to add “as many regional partners as possible”. At the very least, it would seem that Georgia Tech would have to be one of those regional partners. So, are we to believe that Georgia Tech would actually prefer not joining UVA and UNC in the Big Ten and move over to the Big 12 instead with, say, Florida State, Clemson and 1 or more other random ACC schools? I guess stranger things have happened, but that doesn’t pass the smell test with me.

(4) If the Big 12 can’t add any ACC schools, who else would they be willing to add (if anyone at all)? – Going back to my comment in the opening paragraph to this post, it’s pointless to ask a Big 12 source about whether his/her conference would be interested in adding Florida State. Of course they would! What’s more instructive is what the Big 12 willing to do in the event (and I would characterize it as the likely event) that Florida State and other ACC schools don’t want to join. Is some combination of Cincinnati, UConn and/or BYU worth it for the Big 12 to expand for? Are there less obvious options (e.g. Boise State, UNLV, San Diego State) that could be on the table? Alternatively, would the Big 12 simply shut down all expansion talk completely if it can’t poach from the ACC? It’s an easy question to ask whether a conference is willing to expand for a sexy name – that’s not news. What’s tougher to gauge is what the expansion plans would be (if any) when those sexy names aren’t coming.

What I hope is that the conversation is less about what the Big 12 wants (which we know) and more about why the Big 12 should be able to get what it wants beyond simply offering a larger amount of TV money (even when simply offering a larger amount of TV money hasn’t worked with the Big Ten and SEC in luring ACC targets). Maybe the Big 12 can pull off a stunner and pick off a prize like Florida State, but believe it or not, conference realignment at the power conference level is more complex than saying that everyone is trying to get into Conference A just because it’s making more money than Conference B.

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

(Image from New York Times)

 

As the college football season has come to an end with Alabama and the SEC triumphant once again and basketball season in full swing, let’s take stock of the conference realignment landscape:

(1) Is the Big Ten expanding to 16 or 18 (or more) and if so, when? – Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune recently noted that there are some within the Big Ten that believe that the conference won’t stop expanding until it gets to 18 schools.  That being said, I’m not someone that believes that further Big Ten expansion is imminent.  Sure, there are schools that the Big Ten seem to be more than willing to add to create a legit superconference (e.g. Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and, of course, Notre Dame), but I continue to believe that there isn’t going to be some type of impending exodus from the ACC.  Look back at how much of a sales job the Big Ten needed to procure Maryland, which is a school in a state contiguous to the current Big Ten footprint, has relatively weak conference rivalries (Terps fans may care about Duke and UNC, but it’s not reciprocated), has turned into a Northern school from a cultural perspective and clearly needed more athletic department money.  From my vantage point, the members of the ACC still like the league even if they’re wary about the TV contract (whereas the Big 12 is the opposite where everyone outside of Texas really isn’t a huge fan of the league per se but are happy about the latest TV deal).  Are the Big Ten and SEC stronger than the ACC?  Absolutely.  However, that doesn’t automatically mean that the ACC is a sitting duck that’s about to get picked apart.

Let’s put it this way: if the Big Ten really thought that it could obtain all of the ACC schools that I’ve seen rumored that the conference wants to add in such a quick manner (e.g. within the next year), then I highly doubt that Jim Delany would have granted an invite to Rutgers.  That’s not a knock on Rutgers and what it can bring to the table in the new Big Ten setup (the school makes sense as an addition for various reasons, not the least of which is a presence in the New York City metro area), but UVA, UNC, Georgia Tech and probably Duke (yes, Duke, and yes, I need to take a shower after saying that) would have all been ahead of the Scarlet Knights on the pecking order.  Convincing Maryland to head to the Big Ten was tough enough and that’s nothing compared to persuading truly Southern schools such as UVA and UNC to come along (and by the same token, the SEC isn’t going to be as attractive to those same schools as it was to Texas A&M and Missouri).

As a Big Ten guy, I personally see a ton of benefits for the conference if it raids the ACC further.  From an objective standpoint, though, I don’t see that happening soon.  The threat of the Big Ten being on the prowl probably gives the conference more power than it does in terms of actually striking.  I know this much: the Big Ten will wait for who it really wants at this point.  They’re not going to force anything other than a 100% fit and to me, that would likely need to be some combo of UVA, UNC, Georgia Tech and/or Notre Dame (although I’d personally want to see Florida State become a prime target).  That could take awhile to come to fruition, so I believe we can put the Superconference Armageddon scenarios away for the time being as realistic (even though they’re so much fun to talk about as hypotheticals).

(2) What are the Big Ten divisions going to look like? – Greenstein’s report also intimated that the Big Ten was looking at an East/West split for divisions with the possibility of putting Northwestern in the East due to its alumni contingents in the New York and Washington, DC regions.  However, the word out of Northwestern is that they would prefer to stay in the West with its closer rivals such as Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin along with enjoying a massive influx of Nebraska fans buying up tickets in Evanston every other year.

From what I’ve seen, the divisional alignment that I had proposed a couple of weeks ago with Michigan State in the West and both Indiana and Purdue in the East and every school having a protected cross division rival won’t come to fruition.  If Northwestern is in the West (and I’ll be honest as an Illinois fan that I’d personally be pretty pissed if Northwestern ends up in the East on top of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State), then it would seem that Indiana would make more sense as the Hoosier State rep in the East (look at this Wall Street Journal article from a few years ago about how many East Coast students have been invading Bloomington lately) while Purdue would head to the West.  That would mean the East would have Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana, while the West would have Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.  In that event, I would hope that the Big Ten assigns Indiana-Purdue as the only protected cross division rivalry while everyone else goes on a regular rotation.  This would allow the West schools to continue playing Michigan and Ohio State more often, especially if the Big Ten increases its conference schedule to 9 games.  The Pac-12 did the right thing by only making the games between the various California-based members into annual cross division games and not trying to force any unnatural pairings.  Hopefully, the Big Ten has the good sense to do the same.

(3) What’s going on with the Big East/Mountain West skirmish? – As of now, the conference realignment action is really happening outside of the scope of the five power conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12).  The latest cog in the Gang of Five wheel is San Diego State, which is faced with a decision of whether to “go back” to the Mountain West Conference (which they are still a member of until July 1st) or “stay” with the Big East as football-only member (which they have committed to join on that date) and the Big West for basketball and Olympic sports.  I don’t envy the decision that has to be made by the Aztecs since neither option is exactly optimal – it’s either being in the MWC, which has a new TV deal structure that will largely benefit Boise State, or the Big East whose membership is in flux and SDSU will almost certainly be the lone extreme geographic outlier.

Even though there’s a case to be made that San Diego State would make more football TV money in the Big East and actually reduce their Olympics sports travel costs in the Big West, I believe that the Aztecs will ultimately stick with the MWC.  It comes down to a simple question: would San Diego State have chosen to join the Big East one year ago if it knew how the league would look today?  In my opinion, it would be an emphatic “No”, as evidenced by schools in smaller markets such as UNLV and Fresno State having since rejected overtures from the Big East.  It would have been one thing if the Big East still had AQ status (or the equivalent of it in the new postseason system) or could reasonably procure an outsized TV contract compared to the MWC (which is what Big East commissioner Mike Aresco has been trying to convince people will be coming down the pike even though no one outside of Big East partisans believes him), but being the sole West Coast team in a league that isn’t receiving favored treatment anymore and looks like it won’t be adding anyone else within 1500 miles of your school (which we’ll get to in a moment) is a rough thing for any university president or athletic director to sign up for.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the Big East is a bad choice for everyone.  Houston and SMU, who have been rumored to be targets of the MWC, still make a lot more sense in the Big East.  At worst, those schools will be in a better version of the Conference USA that they will be leaving, so the MWC doesn’t provide much upside comparatively.  As much as some observers seem to want to watch conferences just pack it in and completely die off, the Big East (or whatever it will be called in the future, which is a separate issue) can still survive as an entity with the pieces that it still has left.  Tulsa appears to be a Big East expansion target, which would be a solid addition for its Southwestern flank.  UMass is also out there as a classic “university presidents might love it and fans will hate it” option – they have a nascent and struggling FBS program yet offer a public flagship university in the Northeast that plays football at that level (which otherwise don’t exist at all outside of the 5 power conferences plus UConn).  Several other schools from Conference USA (e.g. Southern Mississippi) and the MAC (e.g. Northern Illinois) might also get a look, but my feeling  is that Tulsa and UMass are the frontrunners to get the Big East up to 12 football members (assuming that San Diego State stays in the MWC) as soon as possible.  The league would then do everything it can to keep Navy on board as an addition for 2015 and, if Mike Aresco is successful in doing so, would target one more school on top of that to get to 14 schools for that season.

(4) What is the TV Contract and Expansion Status for the “Catholic 7”? – The Catholic 7 defectors from the Big East (DePaul, St. John’s, Marquette, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Villanova and Providence) have upended the “football means everything and basketball means nothing” axiom of conference realignment.  According to Darren Rovell of ESPN. com, Fox has offered $500 million over 12 years for the Catholic 7, with the assumption that the group adds 5 more schools to get up to 12 members.  That figure will likely be larger than what the football playing schools in the Big East will receive for both football and basketball.  I’ve said many times on this blog that football in and of itself isn’t what’s valuable, but rather quality content.  In this case, the Catholic 7 are offering quality content in their sphere of non-FBS basketball schools with traditional schools in large urban markets.  The problem with so many conferences is that they’re trying to apply the way that the Big Ten and SEC make money via football when they don’t have the assets to do it properly.  It would be akin to a mom-and-pop corner store trying to run a business like Wal-Mart or Target without the requisite supply chain.  Not every conference can be all things to all people in the manner of the Big Ten and SEC, so the Catholic 7 was smart enough to realize (or at least make the right decision when backed into a corner) that they can exploit a lucrative niche.  They became the Trader Joe’s of college conferences as opposed to Wal-Mart, if you will.  Instead of being subject to the whims of raids from the 5 more powerful football conferences as members of the hybrid Big East, the Catholic 7 have positioned themselves as arguably the most powerful non-FBS sports conference out there.  The non-FBS market might be much smaller than the FBS market as a whole, but there’s something to be said to being #1 in the former with complete control of your destiny as opposed to #6 (or even #7) in the latter without any buying power.

With the Fox offer apparently contingent upon the Catholic 7 adding 5 schools, that brings into question who would be the expansion candidates.  Xavier and Butler have been continuously named by several separate outlets as locks, so that takes up the first two spots.  The next 2 most likely targets appear to be Dayton (great fan base) and Creighton (ditto with a top notch on-the-court program right now on top of that).  All 4 of those schools should feel fairly comfortable about getting into the new league with the Catholic 7 (which may very well still end up with the Big East brand name when all is said and done) with this news about Fox wanting a 12-team league.  That leaves the last spot that appears to be a battle between St. Louis and Virginia Commonwealth.

If I were running the Catholic 7, I’d definitely recommend SLU as school #12.  From my vantage point, this is an opportunity for this group of schools to create a conference with branding that goes beyond athletics with like-minded institutions.  Essentially, the new league can be to urban undergraduate-focused private schools in the Midwest and East Coast what the Big Ten is to large research institutions in the same region.  In that regard, SLU is a perfect institutional fit with the Catholic 7 and the 4 other schools mentioned.  SLU also has excellent basketball facilities and a solid history in the sport, so it’s not as if though this would be a poor on-the-court move.

VCU, on the other hand, would purely be a basketball resume addition.  Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, as this new league is going to need top notch hoops teams on-the-court to gain the requisite NCAA Tournament credits to pay the bills.  At the same time, VCU would be an Eastern-based addition to balance out all of the other probable expansion candidates that are located in the Midwest.  However, I’m wary about VCU being an addition based on short-term results as opposed to long-term institutional fit.  What surprises me is that there has been zero buzz about the Catholic 7 looking at Richmond, which has a solid basketball resume itself and is a better institutional fit as a private liberal arts school located in the same market as VCU.

It’s not an accident that SLU was added by the Atlantic 10 immediately after Conference USA stopped its hybrid model after the Big East raids of 2003, while VCU and Butler were only invited this year.  SLU would be a long-term move in a solid TV market that’s a great institutional fit and makes geographic sense assuming that the Catholic 7 wants to add Creighton.  I have all of the respect in the world for VCU as a basketball program, but SLU would be best for the new Catholic 7 league for the long run.

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

(Image from CBS Sports)

In my observations of conference realignment over the past several years, I’ve actually believed that the various oft-maligned leaders of the Big East have often received a bad rap.  The frequent criticism that the basketball side ran the Big East rang hollow to me since having great basketball while improving football are not mutually exclusive, meaning that it made no sense to dilute what was legitimately an elite basketball conference just to add mediocre football bodies.  At the same time, there was never going to be a “proactive” move that would have prevented any Big East member from accepting an invite from the ACC, Big 12 or Big Ten.  Adding the likes of Houston, SMU, East Carolina, Memphis and Tulane earlier was never going to change the minds of Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Louisville and Rutgers when they got the opportunity to find different homes.  No one can really blame any Big East leader for those schools leaving.

The last two defections (Rutgers to the Big Ten and Louisville to the ACC), though, should not have caused an exodus that has seen the non-football “Catholic 7” group (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, DePaul and Marquette) leave the league that several of them founded and Boise State decide to never even join as a football-only member (with San Diego State likely leaving right behind them).  Just because UConn and Cincinnati are doing everything that they can to leave the Big East didn’t have to mean that this league needed to split apart entirely.  Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, who came into the office this past summer with great fanfare and accolades from college sports industry veterans, has made a number of missteps that can’t be simply blamed on Rutgers and Louisville leaving.

Back in the heady days of October, the spin coming out of the Big East was that their new TV deal would be well in excess of $10 million per all-sports school and could even approach ACC-level figures.  Aresco, being a long-time TV industry executive with CBS Sports and ESPN, seemed to have some street cred on the issue.  However, the problem with all of the Big East valuations was that they were based on external broad-based market factors, such as new ESPN competitors (e.g. NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports One, etc.) needing the magic word of “inventory” and the overall rise in TV sports rights, as opposed to anything at all with the intrinsic value of the Big East itself.  The Big East tricked themselves (and many of their fans) into believing that they could turn down whatever ESPN was offering during an exclusive negotiating window period that ended on October 31st simply because they were selling a new TV contract in a rising market.  Even if Rutgers and Louisville had never left the Big East (as those defections occurred after the ESPN window expired), it was playing with fire.  There was never a guarantee that notoriously cheap Comcast was going to step up with a large offer on behalf of NBC Sports Network while Fox seemed to be more focused on other college conferences.  This isn’t just 20/20 hindsight from my viewpoint – the Big East got cocky about their TV valuation back in the fall and set themselves up to get burned on a number of levels irrespective of the actions of the Big Ten and ACC.

That cockiness about the potential TV deal led the Big East down a path where they mistakenly thought that they could convince BYU to join the league as a football-only member.  As I’ve stated several times before, BYU’s decision to become an independent was much more about obtaining exposure in and of itself with its ESPN contract and the leveraging of BYUtv than TV money itself.  However, reports out of the Big East repeatedly indicated that they wanted to keep going after BYU in a misguided belief that the conference could throw enough money to get the Cougars to bite.  This waste of time with respect to BYU prevented the Big East from moving on to different football-only alternatives for its proposed western flank, such as concentrating more on Air Force or going after other Mountain West members.  By the time that it was clear that the TV deal that the Big East was holding out for would never materialize, it was too late to get even Fresno State or UNLV (much less BYU). Without further western members willing to come to the Big East, that forced Boise State to reevaluate its own status and ultimately decide to remain in the Mountain West.  Whether or not the Big East should have offered Boise State some favorable TV deal terms in the same vein as the Mountain West did (where Boise State’s home games will be sold as a separate TV deal with financial bonuses to schools for national TV appearances) is irrelevant here.  It would never have come to this if the Big East hadn’t overvalued its TV prospects three months ago.

Meanwhile, the Catholic 7 had been witnessing the league that many of them founded start turn completely into Conference USA 2.0 over the past several years.  What kept them around up until last month was the prospect of a TV deal driven by the bubble in college football.  However, what the Catholic 7 figured out (and something that every single college sports fan that follows conference realignment should take note of) is that football in and of itself is not valuable.  Instead, what’s valuable is having the right football teams, and the Big East no longer had them.  Thus, hitching their wagon to schools simply because they played football no longer provided extra value to the Catholic 7, which meant there also wasn’t any point to being in an unstable hybrid that was getting picked apart due to football-focused conference realignment.  Receiving roughly the same TV money in a league that the Catholic 7 could control without worrying about football while also being an aggressor within its sphere of basketball-focused conference realignment (instead of being a victim) became much more appealing.  Of course, that TV calculation by the Catholic 7 would have never happened if the Big East had taken the ESPN offer this past fall since the league would have locked in an amount for the basketball schools that wouldn’t have made it worth it to consider splitting off.

At this point, the Big East mainly has to ensure that schools such as Houston and SMU don’t end up heading over to the Mountain West along with Boise State and presumably San Diego State, as well.  Now, I personally don’t believe that the Big East will lose anyone else to the MWC (the Big East still seems to be a better value proposition for the Texas-based schools), but perception of who is weak or strong can change pretty quickly in conference realignment.  It’s one thing for the Big East to be losing head-to-head battles with the Big Ten and ACC, yet it’s an entirely different matter when the MWC seems to have more momentum.

Ultimately, the decisions of Boise State and the Catholic 7 indicate that the new Big East TV valuation wasn’t going to be much of an increase (if there was an increase at all) over the Mountain West’s current fairly pedestrian deal and what the Catholic schools could receive in basketball TV money on their own.  All of that shows that Aresco turning down ESPN’s offer that would have surely been enough to keep Boise State and the Catholic 7 in the fold was a monumental error.  The Big East wanted to believe that it could still be in the power conference conversation or even argue that it was a stronger football league than the ACC.  However, they got put back into place quickly by the conference realignment gods with a major assist from the hubris of the Big East leadership.

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(Image from Yahoo!)