Forgive yourself for not being completely up to date with the ever-changing world of conference realignment. I’m sure it was lost somewhere in the shuffle of conferences vying for regional supremacy like a weird game of Risk, but schools like Villanova have been left in the dust. Sadly, when the dust settles, they’ll playing home-and-homes with Tulane and Southern Methodist.
Like you, I must not have been told that the Cats had joined Conference USA.
Yes, that’s the harsh reality that faces Villanova in the brave new world come 2014-15. We all know the story. While sitting idly on their hands, Villanova has watched team after team flee the Big East as if a hurricane was about to come through town. But as much as you want to hate Syracuse and Pitt, how can you blame them? If they didn’t make the first move, somebody else would have. If Villanova had a football team, they would have been that somebody.
Add to it Wednesday’s announcement of Louisville heading to the ACC. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that one coming. To top it off, the last two remnants of the football conference — Cincinnati and Connecticut — have one foot out the door with the other stuck in between, hopelessly begging a BCS bystander to pull them through.
Which is why the time is now to dissolve the conference. There are seven non-football schools still in the Big East — Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence, Marquette, DePaul and yours truly — which I will refer to often as “The Seven.” Obviously, these schools have a whole lot more in common than the fact they either don’t have a football team, or it is not of the FBS level. Since the Big East is down to 10 full members (including Cincy, UConn and USF) The Seven could reach the needed two-thirds vote to disband the conference. If they wait until next July, when Houston, SMU, UCF and Memphis join, the window will have officially shut. Sure, The Seven — if all in agreement or not — could still leave the conference at any time after that, but would have to pay exit fees that could be as high as $20 million. It’d basically be like passing go and not collecting $200.
But before diving right in, let me make the obvious disclaimer that football is king. The starkest example is the University of Kentucky, whose football team actually brings in more revenue — and two-and-a-half times more profit — than its basketball team. Kentucky’s 2012-13 athletic budget called for the football program to make $27.6 million in revenue versus expenditures of $9.5 million. The basketball program was slated to make $20.8 million and spend $12.6 million.
I don’t think I have to tell you why it’s important to know a perennial two-win football team can out-earn a perennial two-loss basketball team. If you didn’t know television deals revolve solely around football, I’d like to think you do now.
The Big East does not currently have a TV contract in place for next year (I’ll get there) but will certainly come up well short of what other conference can boast once they settle. For example, the ACC and Big 12 each recently signed contract extensions with ESPN. The 10-team Big 12 lands each school about $20 million per year. The ACC, with the recent addition of Notre Dame, is looking at about $18 million per year. Compare that with the football-playing members of the Big East, who each made $3.1 million in the most recent contract, which yes, has expired.
Still the football boat has all but passed Villanova and I’m not entirely sure it was their best option to begin with. However, not advancing the football program is one thing. Deciding whether or not to abandon a football conference for one without is entirely different.
Probably the most evident problem with disbanding the Big East is the idea that Villanova — along with its counterparts — could never reach the amount of television dollars on their own. People don’t see survival as a viable option without the helpful hand of those cherished football schools (even if it is San Diego State or Navy). The Big East’s previous TV contract with ESPN netted each basketball-only school $1.5 million annually. The football-playing members, as stated above, earned $3.1 million annually. Those numbers will likely go up, but it’s hard to estimate where exactly, considering the amount of programs that have since left.
Anyhow, the Atlantic 10, which is essentially the new conference we’re talking about here, recently struck a TV deal (across multiple platforms) worth $40 million over eight years, or $5 million a year. Divide that by the 16-teams (the A-10 will be at 14 once Temple and Charlotte leave) and relatively speaking, we’re basically talking about peanuts for each school. This new conference would need a TV contract that makes nearly five times the amount of that. Is that possible?
Now, a few things are obvious. One, a Villanova-Georgetown game will have a much larger audience than Fordham and Duquesne. Two, while the A-10 does have similar major markets (New York City, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.) it’s hard to argue their actual presence in any of those cities, especially New York — sorry Fordham. And three, considering the A-10’s previous TV contract (which was miniscule) and the fact they are losing arguably their top program (Temple), they had little negotiating leverage. Still, it was a good deal for the A-10, it’s just not a plausible one for these seven schools.
But does that mean this new league can’t earn a television contract netting them millions of dollars per year? I’m not sold on the answer being as black-and-white as yes — as most people claim. However, it will certainly be difficult-to-impossible to reach that number immediately. As is, their previous contract (which expires at the end of the athletic year) netted them the aforementioned $1.5 million. But, let’s face it — the old Big East was the best basketball conference on the planet. The Seven would be a shell of that, and they wouldn’t even have football.
Still, there is no such argument that can be made that any team in the Atlantic 10 has the media exposure of any of these seven basketball-only schools. Even DePaul, who doesn’t exactly make a dent in the Chicago sports scene, has the potential to be a decent player in the area, given that they actually win more than 12 games a year. Adding more basketball-driven markets to a new conference might not get you the big payday immediately, but could lay the groundwork for a dynamic conference in future, which is what this should be about.
Thus the final straw for the Big East may not be the next team out the door, but rather the next proposed TV contract in. For those that don’t know, the Big East allowed the 60-day exclusive rights window with ESPN to pass, meaning they’re a free agent currently shopping around for the best deal.
So, before blowing this whole thing up, you can count on the Big East not going anywhere until The Seven schools see how much money they’ll be losing out on. The question is how much money is Villanova willing to sacrifice in order to keep their most prized possession, their name.
Count me among the list of people who has no interest watching the Cats battle Houston, SMU or Tulane in late February. Obviously this isn’t about me, but there’s something to be said about the overall fan interest in a program, or a conference that program plays in. I’m also not crazy about the idea of relying on East Carolina’s football program to bring stability and revenue to this conference. Has it really gotten to the point where these Catholic basketball schools have to rely on mid-major football programs to survive? I think that’s ludicrous.
Pulling the Plug
Pardon the history lesson, but let’s get a few things out of the way. The original Big East was formed in 1979 and included seven schools. Five of those original seven schools still call it home with four of them (Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s and Seton Hall) being part of The Seven. The fifth is UConn, who has publically stated their desire to leave.
Then, Villanova joined a year later. The reason I bring this up is it might be easier said than done for so many founding programs to be the reason for the demise of such a famed conference. Unquestionably, the sole reason for the Big East’s existence — and any resemblance of current stability — is because of The Seven schools not having another option. And, if this were to come true, with these seven schools moving on, it would be the end of the Big East — their collective homes for the last 30-plus years.
Unfortunately, the Big East has done nothing to warrant these schools to not think about pulling the plug. You can argue that if you like, but the Big East has completely turned its back on basketball in an effort to keep its status as a BCS automatic qualifier after 2013. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t possible. It’s hard to solely blame John Marinatto for this because of the tremendous amount of money at stake. In the meantime, they added above average football schools with very little basketball success — with the exception of Memphis on both accounts.
The attempt failed so bad that while the new BCS format added two extra teams, they still eliminated one auto-qualifier in the form of the Big East champion, thus rendering its status as officially a Mid-Major. Fortunately for Villanova, it has the option to shed that moniker if they can be proactive here.
Keeping true to its Catholic routes, you would instantly think about Notre Dame here. Undoubtedly the Irish would be interested in the core idea. Also, with the new BCS rules, we know Notre Dame’s football team is not going to join a conference anytime soon. Unfortunately, the Irish did just leave for the ACC (in all other sports), which has a coveted TV contract. They’re ideal, but I’m not sure they’re realistic.
• Xavier — If they had a football team, they would have been in the Big East by now anyhow. Cincinnati is a strong college market and the basketball program is in the Top 25 annually. Cintas Center is a beauty, too.
• Dayton — Probably the most underrated consistent mid-major program on the planet. They have a great fan base, a solid facility and share core values with the rest of these schools.
• Saint Louis — Facilities aren’t a driving factor in this, but it’s hard to ignore the newly built Chaifetz Arena. Extending to the Midwest is important here, too. Marquette and DePaul would certainly be in favor. And, they’re no slouch on the court, either.
Then you start to get outside of the box, because reaching 12 teams, or more, is the ideal goal. Again, I’ll leave Notre Dame off this list because I think this conference could survive without them. Obviously, they’re still better off with the Irish, but I’ll get to that later.
• Creighton — They’re actually No. 1 on my entire list — yes, a Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb. is appealing. Creighton was sixth in the entire country in attendance last year at 16,665 per game. And while calling Century Link Center home — or whatever they call it — they’re arguably as major of a school as you can find. It’s an ideal fit with plenty of quality basketball tradition.
• Butler — Basketball alone, they’re a great fit — doesn’t Hinkle Fieldhouse seem like it belongs in this conference? Plus, you can’t ask for more than adding a big Midwest market. They are private, but do not have a religious affiliation for what it’s worth.
• Brigham Young — As long as the Cougars are independent in football, they’re an option here. Again, another huge fan base that is nationally recognizable. They were 12th in the country in attendance and play in a downright massive arena. How far west would you want to go? Obvious disclaimer, but they’re not a Catholic university.
• Gonzaga — Arguably the crown jewel of the group, but do the Zags want to do all this travelling? Extending further out to the west might be needed to help entice them. As for basketball — yes, they’re big time. It would immediately boost the public’s reception of the conference.
• Richmond — Probably on the backburner unless the league finds out it can’t go too far west. Personally, I think Richmond would be a great fit that would allow the conference to extend into a new media market.
• Saint Mary’s — Another private, catholic institution with strong basketball history, but they clearly lack the facilities. Are they a packaged deal with Gonzaga? Is this simply too much travelling for college basketball?
• Virginia Commonwealth — A public university, yes. But, without a football team, they would be no real threat to leave. On the court, they’ve won at least 18 games every single year since 2002 and have a good fan base. Clearly, though, it’s them or Richmond. It would not be both.
The obvious drawback here is a national conference. The one thing we’ve noted over and over again is money. Well, travelling expenses would be quite large for schools that are already on a tight budget. Sure you could limit the travelling with two divisions of six, but is that going to be good enough for Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s or BYU? Add to it, the West Coast Conference just signed an eight-year extension with ESPN. It would take a good leap of faith. I think they’re options down the road.
And then there’s Notre Dame, who recently left for the ACC in all sports except football and hockey. ACC full members receive about $18 million per year on their television contract. Hard to imagine the Irish would want to leave whatever piece of the pie they get for this new conference. For arguments sake, though, Notre Dame makes plenty — supposedly around $15 million annually — off its football contract with NBC.
The best option, to me, would be to add the first five programs I mentioned and split into two divisions. If the conference can be successful like I envision it, you can begin to look elsewhere a few years down the road, such as some teams from the West Coast Conference and potentially Notre Dame — who, make no mistake about it, would be interested in the idea.
Why it works
Look, this new conference is not going to reach a TV contract anywhere near $20 million annually. But neither is the Big East. We also know that if money weren’t such an issue, it might have happened by now. So, it’s definitely a big roll of the dice, but Villanova cannot continue to sit still and wallow in what will become a mediocre basketball conference.
The new, 12-team league (with Xavier, Dayton, Saint Louis, Creighton and Butler) would be considered a major basketball conference, no question about it. This year alone, they’d probably be considered the third best conference in the country (with all other additional realignments). They’d also be able to brand themselves as a premier basketball conference considering the Big 10 and ACC still focus much of their attention on football.
They would have major media markets that are basketball-driven cities. They’d still be able to play a conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, which would actually be more of a draw than the one in two years if nothing changes. They would also likely be able to organize a Private vs. Public challenge, similar to the ACC-Big 10 event going on this week. No, it wouldn’t be the Catholics vs. the Convicts, but that challenge would have more weight to it than any of the others.
And simply put, it would not be the Atlantic 10. No, St. John’s certainly is not the New York Knicks, but they’re nowhere near Fordham territory either. And with apologies to St. Joe’s and La Salle, they aren’t Villanova — although they might be in a few years if things don’t change. Georgetown has a massive advantage over George Washington in D.C.
I don’t work for NBC, so I’m not entirely sure what a future TV contract might offer Villanova, or the rest of these basketball-only schools. Thus, it’s hard for me to definitely say it’s time to leave. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine the Big East finding a way to reach double-digits in annual millions for its members. And, try to remember the basketball-only schools like Villanova won’t get the whole pie. If a TV contract isn’t offering these basketball-only schools more than $4 million a year, I seriously don’t think it’s worth it.
In terms of growth, I feel the best option for these seven schools is to move on together. I’m well aware — as discussed earlier — a bad football team (or conference) tends to trump its basketball brethren no matter how good that team is. But I’d rather see Villanova play in a very good basketball conference — that certainly could garner quality TV revenue in the future — than be a member of a mid-major football conference with a diluted basketball slate.
Pick your poison. You can sit and wait for the Big East to wither away into nothing, while playing a mid-to-low-major basketball schedule, or move into a major basketball conference with less television revenue. I’ll take my chances with the latter.