Big East hoops schools talking split from football

USA TODAY Sports

The long rumored Big East split up may eventually come to fruition after a meeting of Big East Catholic school officials in New York apparently discussed the issue.

"With Villanova taking a leadership role, the basketball schools are exploring every avenue to," advance the "core asset" of basketball, according to a letter from the Wildcats' AD, Vince Nicastro. It appears that the plan for advancement is to participate in discussions about forming a new conference of basketball schools, that would attempt to raid some of the better programs from the Atlantic 10 or CAA conferences.

In a CBS Sports article, citing a report from former Boston Globe writer, Mark Blaudschun, it was reported that the Big East's seven Catholic members met in New York to discuss, among other things, a potential breakaway from the football side of the league. The discussions appear to be held with the knowledge of the rest of the league as commissioner Mike Aresco reportedly was in attendance to help soothe concerns about the coming TV contract.

The current state of the Big East is unlikely to afford the Big East basketball schools a raise from the approximately $1.5 million they currently receive from television every season. That revenue has long been a driver of basketball success for schools like Villanova and Georgetown, even if it hasn't translated into big results at other schools in the league -- and those two schools along with St. John's have, in the past, been bigger proponents of staying together with the football side of the conference.

Now, reports make it seem that those sentiments may be shifting.

If they were to split off, the basketball schools would need to fill out their roster and would do so with other smaller, mostly private schools with recent basketball success and no FBS football programs. Schools like, Butler, VCU, Xavier, Saint Louis, Dayton, George Mason and Creighton.

In one estimate, the new Big East line-up might only be worth $80 million per season, which would likely result in a decrease from the current payouts that the Catholic schools are used to. That may be the factor that changed the direction that the wind was blowing for these schools.

Then again, television networks haven't shown any willingness to pay out amounts as big as the $7 figure per-school payouts that the old Big East was earning annually for a basketball-only product. The Catholic schools would also need to expand to offer networks enough television inventory to create value, though such a move might also dilute the product offered.

A non-FBS conference wouldn't offer anywhere close to the quality of product that the old Big East offered. For television networks, the large markets might be attractive, but the television ratings of the programs currently in the mix to join this league aren't likely to reach the same heights as the old Big East -- which despite it's basketball prowess, still was at the bottom of the six power conferences in average TV ratings. Without Syracuse, Pittsburgh, UConn and Louisville, the Catholic schools will have to hope that a few marquee match-ups like Villanova/Georgetown are enough to carry a league whose ratings may not make a Neilsen-blip otherwise.

Travel in a league with Creighton, located in Omaha, Nebraska, isn't a serious savings over travel to major airport hubs in Texas, Memphis, Florida and New Orleans. So savings on travel may not make up a huge portion of the difference in TV rights fees by offering savings elsewhere, unless the schools constructed a league with members they could bus to.

Madison Square Garden could also potentially back out of their recent long-term extension with the Big East if membership continues to change, according to an ESPN source. The arena wouldn't necessarily align with the basketball members either, as it might prefer to host more NCAA tournament games and be part of the ACC tournament rotation.

As NCAA compliance-blogger John Infante tweeted, "College athletics in 2012 is like the housing market in 2007. If the asset value stops just going up, you are already bankrupt." No matter what league the Catholic schools end up in, the value of their asset has declined without a BCS-AQ conference to house it. The question is which option will do the least damage.

Consider this: Villanova should know how fickle fans can be. While games against major Big East opponents or opponents from other major conferences might sell out the Wells Fargo Center when Villanova has a competitive team, a bad season or a bad opponent can just as easily lead to an empty arena. This season, even the Pavilion crowds have been weaker than normal, what will the Wildcats do when their biggest draw after Georgetown is St. John's?

At least in the FBS Big East conference, strong basketball programs at UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Temple would still be coming into town to help sell tickets. There would be plenty of duds as well, but it isn't as if the Catholic league is full of recognizable draws for Villanova fans. Even the addition of Xavier, for example, may not be the kind of addition that can sell out the Wells Fargo Center, the distant midwestern school is about as familiar to fans as Marquette and is about as strong a program, but Marquette left thousands of seats unoccupied last season.

There was reportedly a major concern on the part of the basketball schools that adding Tulane to the league for basketball would damage the league's RPI rating and hurt their NCAA tournament chances. They nonetheless voted to include the New Orleans school in their conference, likely because they felt ECU would have been worse and the conference needed to add another school as an all-sports member.

Of course, Villanova could have stemmed those concerns by stepping up their own program to FBS, and becoming a football member. There are no indications that such a move was ever on the table, however, and Villanova leadership reportedly would prefer not to move football into FBS through a non-power conference.

The Catholic schools likely can't simply dissolve the league by voting as a bloc, since Temple University became a full voting member on July 1, 2012, according to their contract with the Big East. That would give them the football members of the conference just enough votes to block a dissolution.

By leaving the Big East without dissolving the conference, the basketball members, and specifically Villanova and Georgetown, would forfeit what has been significant NCAA conference payouts from their recent deep tournament runs. The Big East will continue to receive that NCAA revenue for a few years going forward, including revenue generated by Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, that will stay with the league -- Rutgers did not generate any NCAA tournament revenue during it's Big East tenure.

It would cost these schools $5 million each to withdraw from the Big East conference.

After sitting idle for over a year as the Big East crumbled, the Catholic schools are only now beginning to look at their futures. Ironically, their thinking about a basketball-first conference without football is more of a blast-from-the-past, a look toward the original dream of Dave Gavitt in pulling the Big East together. The original Big East, however, brought together schools with football and without, public universities and private, and existed in a time when football didn't have to be part of the equation.

Creating a basketball-first conference would be a bet that the future of college athletics will take a dramatic turn in favor of regular-season basketball after around 100-years of football supremacy. The power of college football in driving fan interest, media interest, money and power has been apparent since the 1950s (which was ironically around the time when many Big East Catholic schools were dropping that sport). The basketball members of the Big East may achieve stability by departing, but achieving growth may be harder.

A decision on whether to stay or go should be made before July 1, 2013, when the Big East is slated to welcome most of it's new membership. Another option may be to bolster Big East basketball by adding additional basketball-only members, such as Xavier, to the current FBS league.

Updated 2:15p - While Mark Blaudschun is now reporting that the Big East basketball schools can leave the conference without paying a fee if they ALL agree to withdraw at the same time (a provision he claims was inserted five years ago), a copy of the Conference Bylaws that was attached to the West Virginia lawsuit does not appear to contain such a provision. While those bylaws reference a 2001 Constitution (section 17.01), that document is superseded by recent bylaw amendments and the reference in the bylaws only seems to serve only to hold former conference members (Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech) to their obligations at the time of their departure during an earlier realignment.

Blaudschun also reports sources saying that those schools could retain the Big East name, which also doesn't appear straightforward under the bylaws should they withdraw from the league (and may not even be desirable if they did). He does, however, note that the next move will likely come from the commissioner's office rather than from the basketball schools.

He also previously reported that:

The Big East tried to avoid the breakaway by telling the Catholic schools it wanted to set up "mirror" games against its other Catholic rivals, meaning a home and home series among the 7 Catholic Schools. Whether that will be enough to keep the conference together is uncertain. Aresco has tried to sell this concept to the Catholic schools, telling them they can still have traditional rivals while playing under the Big East football umbrella. Whether Aresco made his case also remains to be seen.

Updated 2:54p - ESPN reports that the current 14-school Atlantic 10 conference is prepared to expand to 21 members in the event that the Big East Catholic schools opted to leave the league. The A10 schools currently receive less than $400,000 per year from television partners and while some of it's games appear on ESPN, many more are buried on more obscure CBS- and NBC-owned cable networks.

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