Speculative report says Big East could dissolve, but it wouldn't be easy

Tom Pennington

Though repeated as a sourced report by outlets like NBC Sports, the Providence Journal's report on Big East dissolution should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Providence Journal reported that the Big East could be dissolved if one more member departs from the football-playing side of the conference. The article announcing this fact paints a picture of dictatorial rule by the football schools of the conference and a scrappy band of basketball-only members prepared to finally strike back and get out from under the thumb of their oppressor. It is also a slight mischaracterization of the issue.

When you excise the speculation from the report, it is correct in its factual statements.

There may be a "tipping point" for "some of those seven [Catholic] schools," as McNamara writes, that causes them to rethink their loyalty to the football side of the league. The league is adding both members who will add something immediately to the basketball product (Memphis, Temple and perhaps UCF) as well as a number of schools who haven't been basketball powers in recent years (Houston, SMU), all the while losing some flagship basketball members among the football schools.

So, the ProJo asks, "why continue in the hybrid format?"

According to the league's bylaws, by a vote of two-thirds of the conference's membership, the conference can be dissolved as an entity, essentially making all of it's members free-agents and potentially independents. It's the nuclear option, and it is probably written into most conference bylaws and/or corporate documents.

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With the departure of one more football member, the basketball schools would technically have a window between that point and July 1st, where if all seven of them were to vote in favor of dissolving, it would be sufficient to meet the two-thirds majority. One more departure would leave the conference with just three full, football-playing members remaining (Cincinnati, South Florida and either UConn or Louisville), since the incoming full members and Temple won't have a vote until they officially become full members of the conference on July 1st this summer.

The reasoning the Providence Journal offered was that the diminished league wouldn't offer a big enough benefit to the basketball schools in their primary sport. Noting that, "a Big East without UConn would strip the basketball-only members of a vital ticket draw."

As for whether or not it would actually happen is recognized by the article as well, noting that as of last week, there hadn't been any talk of dissolving the league. The end-game of any dissolution plan would be for the Catholic schools to start over from scratch and form a new basketball league without any football-playing members.

Generally, the basketball members have been in favor of tying themselves to the football league because of the benefits of such an arrangement to their bottom line. The fact is that television money and power is drawn to leagues that offer football and that the ability to attract a basketball payout, or a deal with significant television exposure, could be lost or severely diminished within a Catholic league.

Some of the Catholic schools may want to take that chance, but according to the Providence Journal, it isn't unanimous, Georgetown and St. John's are named as major opponents of splitting from the football league in the report, and Villanova had also been counted in that group in earlier reports. Without unanimity among the seven basketball schools, dissolution is impossible, and withdrawal from the Big East would be difficult.

Big East basketball members all earn somewhere upwards of $1.2 million in league television distributions (in addition to NCAA tournament revenue and other payments). They were hoping for as much as $3 million per year under a new deal but that may be diminished now. Their basketball-only compatriots in the Atlantic-10 conference receive less than $500,000 per season in television revenue each, under a recently-signed deal.

While a few basketball school administrators in the Big East believe that a Catholic league built around their members would do better than that number, it is clearly not a unanimous viewpoint. Even the "Georgetown to Gonzaga" idea proposed by an anonymous TV executive would fall flat if the television revenue is cancelled out by onerous travel costs. When these ideas are proposed there is often no real study of the logistics and real costs — would multiple cross-country trips make sense for field hockey or volleyball?

There is another reason that the dissolution of the Big East could prove problematic. The conference has signed contracts with eight new members in either football-only or all-sports who have taken actions to leave previous conference affiliations behind and make financial commitments toward joining the Big East in July. Those members could find themselves in a difficult spot should the conference fold prior to arrival.

At the very least, those incoming members need to be given fair warning that dissolution is on the table, but even then, pulling the trigger could cause serious and unforeseen harm to those schools. Conference USA already made moves to replace the four departing members, increasing their footprint into a 14-member league — they might not be able to give those schools a life-boat by expanding to 18 members.

Boise State and SDSU may fare better going back to the Mountain West, but the financial costs of all of the switching would still be there. As would Navy's costs of wrapping up contracts and agreements in preparation for Big East football membership, and Temple would also be without a home for any of it's teams without the Big East.

The conference obligated itself to those schools when it entered contracts for them to join as members. By dissolving, the basketball members would potentially open themselves up to lawsuits for damages incurred by those incoming members from the process. The amount of those damages could be minimal if things pan out appropriately, but they also may be large.

A "power move" to dissolve the conference is therefore unlikely. Any such vote could only come after a negotiation with the football members and incoming football members to ensure that everyone had a "golden" parachute to a new home.

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