Archive for the ‘DePaul Blue Demons’ Category

I’m finally back from a spring break vacation in Arizona (80 degrees for the White Sox spring training game that I attended last Wednesday compared to 30 degrees for Opening Day in Chicago yesterday), so let’s get a few updates since I haven’t posted in awhile:

(1) Big Ten Divisions – It appears that the Big Ten office is heeding the calls for the “Keep It Simple Stupid” approach of dividing the soon-to-be 14-team conference into East and West divisions, with Michigan State heading East with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, the West having Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota and the only debate being where Indiana and Purdue will be placed.  IU-PU will then be the only protected cross-division rivalry.  Assuming that this comes true, my message to the Big Ten office is the following: THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!  While I initially advocated Michigan State being placed in the West with both Indiana-based schools in the East, the newly rumored setup was the next best alignment from my perspective.  The Pac-12 was smart in not trying to force any protect cross-division games outside of the California-based schools playing each other annually, so it’s great that the Big Ten reportedly will only keep the Old Oaken Bucket as protected while the West can continue to rotate through Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State more often in this KISS alignment.  (Note that it’s a heck of a lot less heartburn for the West schools to see Indiana or Purdue falling off the schedule more often compared to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, which was likely a large driver for Sparty getting placed in the East.) It still makes a lot more sense in my mind for Indiana to head to the East since it’s (1) actually further East than Purdue, (2) a school with a disproportionately large East Coast student population and (3) better for competitive balance purposes.  The only reason that I can think of for IU pushing back on an Eastern placement is that it knows that it will never break its Rose Bowl drought competing in a division with resurgent Michigan and Ohio State programs.  Regardless, the Big Ten seems to finally be making the right choices on its divisional alignment.  Let’s just hope those right choices also extend to burying the Legends and Leaders division names next to Jimmy Hoffa*.

(* The Meadowlands aren’t that far from Rutgers, so it would still be in the Big Ten footprint.)

(2) Sweet Missouri Valley Conference Expansion – The “new” Big East consisting of the old Catholic 7 schools poached Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 and Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference right before the start of the NCAA Tournament, which is likely going to trigger a massive realignment of the midmajor non-FBS conferences.  While the MVC is celebrating Wichita State’s Final Four run, it is also the league most openly pursuing expansion/replacement options as of now (Missouri State’s president actually Tweeted that he’s out visiting interested expansion candidates)*.  Various reports so far indicate that the MVC has had some conversations with Oral Roberts, UMKC, Loyola (Chicago), UIC** and Valparaiso.  The latter three Chicago area schools don’t surprise me at all: I Tweeted a few weeks ago that my gut feeling was that those programs plus Belmont would be at the top of the MVC list if Denver wasn’t going to be considered.  (Reading between the lines in this interview by MileHighMids of Denver’s athletic director, it appears that the MVC would have been interested in Denver if the school were to add more sports, but the AD isn’t willing to commit to that right now.)

(* For a great analysis of potential MVC candidates using Google Maps, check out this anonymous posting.)

(** For disclosure purposes, my parents met at and graduated from UIC, with my father then spending over 3 decades working at that campus. I don’t have any real rooting interest in the UIC Flames sports teams, but I’ll admit to having an affinity for the institution overall with my family connection.)

Perusing some MVC message boards and blogs, I’ve generally seen fans vomit over these choices with calls that they could either (1) do better or (2) stand pat at 9 schools.  It reminds me of the recent UCLA basketball coaching search*, where much of the fan base seemed to be incredulous that they couldn’t lure the likes of Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart and had to settle for the protector of a rapist… er… Steve Alford.**  The MVC fans seemed to have hopes for the likes of SLU and/or Dayton (the former of which is definitely going to be in the Big East, where it’s just a matter of when, while the latter likely will be there but has to sweat it out a bit with Richmond as a competitor for spot #12) and are now facing the reality that the realistic candidates aren’t nearly as desirable.

(* For what it’s worth, I believe that UCLA is an elite program with only Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and those rat bastards from Duke being in the same class. However, the Bruins’ lack of a sexy hire was the result of an elitist approach to job security by the school and fan base. That is, they just fired a guy in Ben Howland who went to three Final Fours, pulled in a top-ranked recruiting class last year and won the Pac-12 regular season championship this year.  At most schools, that record warrants a lifetime contract – Shaka Smart is going to be able to parlay a single Final Four run into perpetuity at VCU.  I fully understand how many UCLA fans believed the trajectory of the program was going in the wrong direction with Howland and a change might have been needed simply for the sake of a change, but they might have failed to understand how top level coaches in stable positions aren’t exactly enthralled with the prospect of taking a job where a 3-time Final Four coach got canned right after winning a conference championship. Hence, the pool of interested parties was much more shallow than anticipated.)

(** I highly recommend Black Heart Gold Pants blogger Patrick Vint’s message to UCLA fans about Alford on Bruins Nation.)

From my perspective, the MVC isn’t going to be able to add any real home run additions on-the-court. Belmont has the best performance over the past few seasons of the potential candidates, but geographic fit seems to be an issue in that case and their attendance figures have been subpar.  As a result, the MVC likely needs to concentrate on attacking its worst weaknesses as opposed to attempting to replace the irreplaceable Creighton in terms of basketball performance.  To me, that worst weakness is that fact that Wichita is the MVC’s largest TV market at #69 overall in the US.  Those of you that read me regularly know that I’m not in favor of expansion only for the sake of additional markets, but in the case of the MVC, having Wichita as your largest market is Charles Barkley turrible. Even if some of the candidates in large markets aren’t necessarily great TV draws, the MVC is eventually going to need them for recruiting purposes for long-term survival.  (This is why even if SLU and Dayton end up leaving the Atlantic 10 on top of Butler and Xavier, that league is still in much better position going forward with its footprint.) That means that a school like Murray State, which has had solid attendance and on-the-court performance, might appear to be desirable for MVC fans but not so much for the conference’s university presidents.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have a particular interest in how the MVC is going to proceed since I firmly believe that it should have a better presence in the Chicago market than it does today. Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley all predominantly draw students from and send alumni to the Chicagoland area (with Northern Iowa and Drake also sending large contingents to the region, too).  However, the MVC doesn’t draw the coverage that it ought to considering the in-place fan base since it lacks a direct Chicago presence (which is critical unless you’re the University of Illinois or Notre Dame).  Therefore, it’s not a shocker that two city schools (UIC and Loyola) and a university on the periphery of the metro region in Northwest Indiana (Valpo) are being visited by the MVC powers that be. The MVC leadership likely recognizes what I see in that Chicago is a large market that can be legitimately leveraged by the conference.  It’s not so much that the MVC thinks that UIC or Loyola can “deliver” Chicago in a way that Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul or Notre Dame are able to, but rather that the critical mass of MVC students from and alums living in the area can give the league a solid presence akin to what the A-10 has in Philadelphia or Washington, DC. The MVC doesn’t have any type of major market anchor right now and that’s increasingly going to be a negative risk factor if it’s not rectified.

I haven’t forgotten that ORU’s crosstown neighbor of Tulsa just got invited to the “Old” Big East (or Conference TBD) today. I’ll have more thoughts on that the status of that league in a separate post. Until then, enjoy the Final Four!

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

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It figures that a conference that has lost 5 all-sports members, 8 non-football schools and 3 schools that accept invites to join but then backed out before playing a down of football within the past 18 months would ultimately end up losing its own name.  Both Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com and Mark Blaudschun are reporting that the Big East presidents are expected to approve a plan to allow for the “Catholic 7” defectors from the conference (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, DePaul and Marquette) to keep the Big East name and leave the league for the 2013-14 season.  Pete Thamel of SI.com notes that Fox is pushing for the early exit and is expected to announce a contract with the Catholic 7/Big East when it unveils its plans for its new pair of sports networks of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.  He also reports that the Catholic 7’s keeping of the Big East name and early exit are effectively being paid for by leaving the exit fees and NCAA Tournament credits of the other Big East schools that have defected or will be defecting (West Virginia, Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, Rutgers and Notre Dame).  Meanwhile, a consensus has formed that Xavier and Butler will be added immediately to the new league with the old name for next season with a chance that a 10th, such as Creighton, comes in at that time.  The Catholic 7/Big East would then likely move up to 12 with St. Louis and Dayton (or possibly Richmond) in 2014-15.

The fight over the Big East was interesting since it’s a brand name that has been dragged through the mud lately yet still had a lot of value to both the Catholic 7 and Conference Formerly Known as the Big East football schools for different reasons.  From my vantage point, the Big East name is more valuable with the Catholic 7, but was more valuable to the football schools.  That is, the Catholic 7 are more able to fully realize the value of the Big East name since it had the bulk of the remaining historical members that weren’t in other power conferences and there wouldn’t be a cognitive dissonance if they held their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.  On the other hand, the football schools have little association with each other besides being new members of the league that was known as the Big East specifically.  The Catholic 7 could have more easily re-branded themselves under a different name since the average sports fan could already largely recognize that group as a cohesive unit, while the football members will need to sell a new untested name on top of educating the public about who is in their conference.  As a result, I’m a little surprised that the football schools didn’t pull out a rant like Marlo did on The Wire about how “My name is my name!”

Of course, the exit fees and NCAA Tournament credits of the other Big East defectors that the Catholic 7 are leaving behind aren’t small amounts.  Some back-of-the-napkin calculations would put that at least on the order of $20 million just for the NCAA credits.  (Edit: Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com reported earlier this month that the Big East actually has a “Realignment Reserve Fund” that is projected to be worth $68.8 million by 2020.)  Significantly, it’s likely that none of that is going to the incoming members of the league as part of their entrance agreements since it is standard operating procedure that new schools do not receive any of the revenue earned before they joined.  This means that UConn, Cincinnati and USF, which are currently the only all-sports members in the Big East with voting rights (Temple still isn’t a full member yet), are probably ending up with all of that money that the Catholic 7 are leaving behind, which would certainly make it more palatable for them to let go of the Big East name in return.  It’s at least some financial consideration for literally the only three schools in all of FBS that will end up earning less conference-level money outright in the new college football playoff system that starts in 2014 than they are in the current BCS regime.

Maybe it is all for the best for the football schools that thought that they were going to be in a conference called the Big East.  Andersen Consulting had to go through an acrimonious split with its parent Arthur Andersen back in the late-1990s, including losing an arbitration proceeding where it was forced to give up any reference to the then-extremely valuable Andersen name*.  The new name “Accenture” was chosen and literally hundreds of millions of dollars needed to be spent on re-branding efforts.  What seemed like a huge branding blow in 2000 ended up becoming one of the most fortuitous name changes in history just a year later when the Enron scandal hit and took Andersen down entirely as an accounting firm.  Sometimes, a fresh name with a new start can end up being better in the long run even if the benefits aren’t obvious today.

(* I was a finance major at the University of Illinois in the late-1990s and, without question, the most prestigious of the then-Big Five accounting firms was Arthur Andersen.  The sad irony of Andersen getting taken down in the Enron scandal partly for enabling poor audit decisions in order to preserve other types of tax services fees was that its main reputation, at least in Chicago, was that it was actually the least sales-oriented and most client-focused of the large accounting firms.)

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

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Brett McMurphy and Andy Katz of ESPN.com have reported that NBC has verbally offered the remnants of the Big East between $20 million and $23 million per year for six years for the conference’s TV rights for all sports (including both football and basketball).  That would be approximately $2 million per year for each school in the league.  By way of comparison, each individual school in the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 (and depending upon who you talk to, soon the ACC) will make about as much TV money on its own annually than the entire Big East conference.  This is the latest news in the stunning decimation of the Big East since the league rejected an offer from ESPN two years ago worth an average of $130 million per year.  During that time frame, the Big East has lost 5 football members that have actually played in the league (Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers and Louisville), 8 non-football members (Notre Dame, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, DePaul and Marquette) and 2 3 schools that defected before they even played a down of Big East football (TCU, Boise State and San Diego State).  In the middle of that process, the conference also lost its place in the college football postseason structure, where it failed to secure a “Contract Bowl” slot (with its former BCS AQ counterparts Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC) and is now part of the “Gang of Five” non-power conference group (with the MAC, Conference USA, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt as new counterparts).  The Big East made a huge gamble in taking its sports rights to the open market when it turned down that lucrative ESPN offer and even the largest conference naysayers couldn’t have predicted how badly that decision would backfire.

The argument that ESPN systemically devalued the Big East to the point where it was effectively destroyed is taken as gospel by many Big East partisans.  It started back in October 2011 with a quote from the then-AD at Boston College stating that ESPN “told [the ACC] what to do” in the wake of Pitt and Syracuse defecting to the ACC.  This line of thinking then continued on as the Big East lost more access in the new college football playoff system than any other conference (in fact, they’re likely going to be the only league that will end up making less money in the new format than it does in the current BCS system) and then suffered a literal avalanche of defections in the past 5 months.

However, it wasn’t the Bristol-based network that effectively killed off the Big East as we once knew it.  Instead, Fox, in its pursuit of becoming the main competitor to ESPN in US sports television, ended up pulling the trigger.  Consider two critical moves:

(1) Big Ten expands with Maryland and Rutgers – When the Big Ten added Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the Big East, Jim Delany wasn’t looking to aid its first tier national TV slate that’s being shown on the Disney networks of ABC and ESPN (unlike the addition of Nebraska in 2010).  Instead, the main beneficiary from this expansion was Fox, which is 51% owner of the Big Ten Network (BTN), since it now has an argument that the network should be carried on basic cable in the New York City and Washington, DC markets.  If anything, this move was terrible for ESPN since it makes Fox/BTN much stronger on the East Coast and took away schools from the two main conferences – the ACC and Big East – in which the Worldwide Leader owns all tiers of conference multimedia rights.  Without Fox and the BTN, the Big Ten doesn’t take Rutgers directly from the Big East or indirectly causing Louisville to defect (since the ACC replaced Maryland with the Cardinals).  The Big East still had the ability to survive as a viable football conference with Louisville and Rutgers in the fold, but once they were gone, Boise State (and subsequently San Diego State) didn’t believe that they would receive enough TV money to justify being complete western geographic outliers.

(2) Catholic 7 leave the Big East… because Fox convinced them to do so – A few weeks after the Rutgers and Louisville defections, the 7 remaining Catholic non-football schools (DePaul, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence and Marquette) decided to split off from the Big East’s football members in order to form a new league (hereinafter called the “Catholic 7”).  Multiple reports from both ESPN (including the McMurphy/Katz report linked above) and Sports Illustrated have stated that Fox is the leading suitor for the rights to the new Catholic 7 league with offers of between $30 million and $40 million per year depending upon whether it has 10 or 12 schools.  That represents the Catholic 7 making around $3 million per year for basketball rights, which is more than the NBC offer to the Big East of $2 million per year for both basketball and football.

I’ve previously set forth reasons why the Catholic 7 would be more valuable than the new Big East even when they don’t offer any football (namely that football in and of itself isn’t what’s driving value and the Catholic 7 brand names and markets are much stronger top-to-bottom in order to garner a premium).  Even if you don’t want to believe that’s the case in terms of comparing the inherent values of the Catholic 7 versus the Big East, a Tweet from Brett McMurphy on Saturday should put this into clearer focus:

Do you see what occurred here if this is true?  Fox approached the Catholic 7 before they split off, which means it’s not so crazy to believe that Fox wanted them to split off.  So, if you believe that Fox is overpaying for the Catholic 7, then you might be right.  However, the point is that Fox needed to overpay the Catholic 7 in order to serve as a catalyst for them to split off.  If Fox just merely offered “fair market value” to the Catholic 7, then they likely would have stayed in the hybrid.  (Anyone that thought that the Catholic 7 would have split off without the knowledge that they’d be getting paid more compared to staying in the hybrid Big East isn’t thinking straight.)  There needed to be an extraordinary financial windfall from Fox in order for the Catholic 7 to take the extraordinary step of splitting off from the Big East football schools.  As a result, it’s almost pointless to try to compare the on-the-court basketball quality of the Catholic 7 versus the New Big East.  The amounts that are being offered by Fox to the Catholic 7 reflect a “blood money” premium offer that they couldn’t refuse, whereas the Big East isn’t going to garner any premium at all and will be subject to the “normal” market forces in play.

That leads to a corresponding question: why would Fox do this?  Why would it want to pay this much for the Catholic 7 instead of, say, simply bidding for the entire hybrid Big East?  Well, let’s take a step back and examine what Fox actually needs in terms of sports content.  The reality is that Fox (and when I say “Fox”, I really mean its new cable networks Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 as opposed to over-the-air Fox) already has a fairly full sports slate in the fall with Major League Baseball, NASCAR, Pac-12 football and Big 12 football rights.  As a result, they don’t have much of a need for other college football games.  The biggest programming gap that Fox has right now is during the winter, where its cable networks are pretty much wide open outside of some Pac-12 basketball rights.

I’ll put on my own tinfoil hat here, where my semi-educated guess is that Fox: (a) no longer had much interest in the New Big East football product after Rutgers and Louisville left, (b) still had interest in the Big East’s basketball product in order to provide winter programming and (c) didn’t want to get into a bidding war with NBC and/or ESPN to buy a Big East package for both basketball and football when all it really wanted was basketball.  As a result, Fox went straight to the Catholic 7 (who represented most of the schools that they wanted to showcase for basketball, anyway) and offered up enough money that would simultaneously be a financial boon to those schools while allowing the cable network operation to save money compared to a competitive bidding situation for the all-sports hybrid Big East rights.  It’s the very essence of a “win-win” for both the Catholic 7 and Fox here.

Meanwhile, the Big East has been left with only one legit suitor with NBC since Fox obviously has no interest (seeing that it made an offer to the Catholic 7 to split up the league), CBS has little funding for its fledgling CBS Sports Network and ESPN has had lukewarm feelings toward the league.  Without a bidding war, the already thrifty Comcast/NBC organization zero incentive to drive up the price of the Big East on its own, so this very low offer reflects that reality.  Either NBC takes the Big East rights or ESPN comes in to match it with its right of first of refusal (which the McMurphy/Katz article notes that the Worldwide Leader has), but there’s no other potential fountain of cash out there.

Sometimes, it’s not quite as simple as saying “UConn is a much better basketball program than DePaul, therefore, UConn should get paid more than DePaul”.  Timing matters in conference realignment and TV contracts, so in this case, Fox had a specific need in a situation where the Catholic 7 was in the right place at the right time.  Granted, that’s no consolation for the fans of schools that are left in the Big East and who may need to start hanging up pictures of Rupert Murdoch on their dartboards instead of Mickey Mouse.

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

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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)

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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.

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

(Image from Yahoo!)

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)

(Image from The Sports Bank)

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)

(Image from Restricted Data)