Expansion Apocalypse: TCU Edition

While the Pac 10, Big 10, Big XII, Mountain West and WAC all shuffled memberships this summer, the Big East, SEC and ACC all sat idly by, watching the theatre on their western flanks. With the fall, however, the Big East beast has awoken and conference expansion is once again a topic of discussion with recent revelations that the Big East has renewed the offer for Villanova to join for football and that the conference has discussed membership with Texas Christian.

TCU is the easternmost member of the Mountain West Conference and a former member of Conference USA. In football they are ranked in the top-five and went to a BCS bowl game last season. The football program would lend instant credibility to the Big East.

How would TCU fit into a conference that is already home to 16 schools? One of three things would have to happen, the Big East would have to vote to expand to 17 schools, vote to evict a current member, or add TCU as a football-only member. Of course, the football schools could split off and add as many western football powers as they needed as well.

A 17-team All-Sports Conference

It's not impossible that the Big East could expand beyond 16 schools. Currently in basketball, conference members play 18 regular season games -- with only a couple being played home and away. A 17th member would eliminate one of the home and away series, but wouldn't require an expansion of the season or a split into two divisions.

Since not every school participates in each non-revenue sport -- Seton Hall notably cut it's track and field program recently, and only seven schools participate in the relatively new lacrosse league. The impact of further expansion would have only a limited effect in those sports.

Voting a Current Member Off the Island

Since about 2005, there have been any number of scenarios proposed where DePaul is kicked out of the Big East. If the current conference members are unwilling to expand beyond 16, one of the options to add TCU is to remove one of the weaker basketball-only schools from the conference.

If the decision were purely one of basketball competition, DePaul would easily be the top choice to go. However, DePaul fields 13 varsity teams, including men's and women's track & field and cross country. Outside of men's basketball, the Blue Demons have been reasonably competitive in the Big East, including a couple good showings in Women's Basketball (they made it to the Sweet 16 in 2006), and won the regular-season softball title last year.

It's not about competition, however. It's about money, and an increase in money is the only way that adding a school like TCU would make sense. How then, will the Big East maximize their revenue by adding a school like TCU? TCU is located in Fort Worth, Texas -- attached to Dallas, it is the nation's 5th largest television market -- a market that cable executives would love to see included on any Big East TV network's footprint. There are four markets larger than Dallas-Ft. Worth, and the Big East has a presence in three of them already -- New York (1), Chicago (3) and Philadelphia (4).

Without DePaul, however, you lose the physical presence that ties the conference to Chicago. Sure, Notre Dame and maybe Marquette can carry that market -- but this isn't Notre Dame football we are discussing -- will TV executives see it that way, however? Will Chicago's cable providers care?

DePaul is still vulnerable, but Seton Hall may actually be more vulnerable. SHU is about dead-middle of the pack in terms of basketball budget in the Big East, butrecent cuts in athletic spending give it one of the lowest overall athletic budgets in the conference. It has been rumored that Big East brass up in Providence were none-too-pleased with Seton Hall's recent cuts, which included a strong track and field program.

Seton Hall also doesn't offer much in terms of a TV market -- Rutgers does just as well to deliver New Jersey and St. Johns already provides a physical presence in New York City. They don't provide an elite-level basketball program, or football. They don't draw huge crowds for basketball and there are questions about their dedication to being competitive going forward.

The Hall, however, is a charter member of the conference -- their saving here -- so despite the fact that they provide minimal value to the conference, it may be more difficult to remove them. They may be encouraged to voluntarily resign, however.

Football-only Membership

Sometimes I wonder if the Big East would really consider a return to associate membership for football programs. The Big East began it's football conference with Rutgers, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Temple as associate members in 1991, all but Temple were eventually integrated as full members shortly after. No other BCS conference has football-only members (though, none has non-football members either), and the addition of one or more could make the Big East more of a laughing-stock than it already is.

Despite that, it may be the easiest way to bring TCU into the conference. The Horned Frogs finished the 2009-2010 basketball season with a 13-19 record in the MWC -- which is hardly a sign of ability to compete in the Big East. As a football-only member, however, TCU could play basketball in a lesser conference like the Sun Belt, and still gain the benefits of a BCS AQ football league.*

Adding TCU as a football-only member either in 2011 or 2012 would give the Big East a top-ranked program that can step in and balance the schedule immediately. It would help protect against a raid by strengthening the TV earning potential of the conference as well.

As a football-only member, TCU would leave the door open for further expansion by bringing Villanova in as a 10th member, or adding additional football-only members.

Should Villanova Be Concerned?

When the news of the TCU-flirtation first hit the newswires, the initial reaction of many was that this was simply a PR move by the Big East conference to encourage Villanova to accept it's invitation to join the conference in football. That talk has seemed to subside as the Big East has appeared to be in actual discussions with TCU.

With TCU on board, Villanova wouldn't lose it's chance to move up like some suggested. In fact, it may make the move more likely. It's foolish to think that the Big East would be happy at 9 members when the "sweet spot" appears to be 12 members (which allows a conference title game). The Big East would still welcome current members like Villanova to move into the football conference for further expansion.

Furthermore, with the additional earning potential of TCU and the more stable 9-team conference alignment, Villanova may view the Big East as a "safer bet." With TCU on board, the Big East may seem more stable and have a greater-chance of a large football TV contract in 2014 when the 'Cats would be able to join the conference.

The financial viability of any move to FBS football will be the primary concern of the Villanova administration, and it is hard to see how TCU would make Big East football weaker financially.

As far as basketball is concerned, the TCU program is currently below Big East standards, but as the top non-BCS athletic department for revenue, it would seem that they have the ability to rise to the challenge. As a 17th member they would make the conference schedule no weaker than it is in a year where Villanova plays a bottom-feeder twice, and replacing a weak program with another weak program will likely be a wash.

Lets not forget that a presence in Texas may also help the conference in recruiting players from that area. With a number of top prospects from East Texas currently at or near the top of various rankings, a school like TCU may help the eastern powers of the Big East to land a player like LeBryan Nash or Isaiah Austin.

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* Despite chatter to the contrary, the Big East is in no danger of losing it's BCS AQ -- it is currently ranked 4th out of 6 on the basis of the standards released by the BCS review committee. Furthermore, the review process is considered more likely to add a 7th AQ conference than to boot one out.

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