"[P]eople talk about how football drives a lot of this, but for some conferences that's certainly the case, but no conference has basketball like ours," Big East commissioner Mike Aresco said on basketball media day.
A certain amount of puffery goes into a statement like that, when dealing with an interested party, but Aresco may be right about the value of basketball to the Big East's continued survival. Football is the big deal product that the conference offers, but it's collection of football programs is not as strong in terms of national intrigue as the four top football conferences and the ACC.
If the Big East is going to play catch-up financially — and according to AJerseyGuy.com, Aresco would like to get close to the ACC's per-school value — it will mean leveraging a strong basketball brand. At least if you believe a recent post on former Boston Globe writer Mark Blaudschun's blog.
Blaudschun doesn't believe that the Big East can reach the ACC's television payouts, but his sources did think that the conference could do okay.
[A]ccording to sources familiar with negotiating process, the Big East could get "decent" money if it breaks its deal into two parts, the main portion with ESPN and the the other part with networks such as NBC and Fox.
NBC Sports and Fox are both upstart cable sports networks looking for content to give viewers a reason to look their way instead of at the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader, ESPN. The Big East will finally get a chance to talk to those networks when an exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and CBS ends this week.
Apparently, Blaudschun reports, the Big East will "tie in" its football package to at least some of the basketball telecasts to maximize the value of both. The conference would offer some higher-value games in both sports to the highest bidder, with additional football games and basketball games being sold off separately.
Blaudschun proposed the following scenario for how such a deal could be structured:
ESPN will buy a package that includes Big East Big Monday basketball, an assortment of mid-week football telecasts, a series of 12 noon football telecasts and the Big East basketball tournament.
Aresco will then go to Fox/NBC and sell other Big East football games, including some atttractive non-conference games and several Big East basketball games in various time slots during the week, depending on the preference of the networks.
Perhaps more importantly, he suggests that ESPN has at least some concern that the Big Ten will eventually want to air more games on the league-owned Big Ten Network, leaving less of that premiere conference for their cable airwaves. Additionally, ESPN places a high value on the Big East Tournament, the closest they will get to owning a piece of March Madness, as well as the Big East's place in their Big Monday basketball broadcasts.
The network's desire to retain those two basketball properties could ultimately raise the value of the football package in the conference as well. The thought of letting NBC have any of the Big East's rights may be saddening for ESPN executives, but allowing the upstart rival to take away Big Monday and the Big East Tournament might be enough to push the network into bidding on a Tier 1 rights package including those assets and some football games.
"I think it's very evident, and I think our basketball schools understand it and our football schools understand it - our football-basketball as well as our football-only - you're stronger with both together," Aresco explained. "The basketball schools bring all that heritage, all that great basketball, which as you know has been a hallmark of this conference for a long time."
In the end, it would seem, however, that the Big East is on a crash course to divide its media rights among two or even three networks. At the very minimum, ESPN, NBC and Fox appear poised to vie for at least some part of the conference's television rights, and many appear to believe that dividing those rights into smaller packages and selling them to multiple partners is the most effective way to generate cash.
This could even result in the creation of a Big East cable network, that would carry some games in both football and basketball as well as additional league- and school-related content — though that may be "down the road."
Realignment certainly hasn't decreased the value of the Big East conference, as ESPN's Burke Magnus, senior vice president for college sports programming admitted to Newsday.
"I think the Big East has done a good job in this fractious time of people coming, people going," he said. "We think they've done a good job in replacing what they lost."
Alone, the basketball schools likely wouldn't fetch as high a value as they will when packaged with some football games. That is evidenced by the Atlantic-10's paltry monetary pay-outs — despite possibly being the strongest non-BCS conference in basketball, they were unable to even sniff the rarified air of the payouts afforded to basketball schools in the Big East conference.
While a conference headlined by former Big East brand names might offer a little more intrigue for broadcasters, it is not the heterogeneous nature of the league that boosts basketball value into the stratosphere. To get the basketball games you need to buy the higher-priced football package. To get the better football package, you need to spend more money to buy the bigger basketball games.
So on and so forth; at least, that is how Aresco and the Big East will hope it works.
Basketball alone is a difficult sell for national television, but when combined with a football package, the value of both is potentially maximized.