When the expansion talk started with rumbling from the Big Ten (and perhaps a comment by Joe Paterno), it was widely believed that the BIG EAST would be on the losing end of the expansion equation. The pundits haven't been vindicated yet -- not only is the BIG EAST still intact, it has decided to become a buyer in the expansion game. The first piece of that puzzle was solved today, when (as anticipated) Texas Christian University (Ft. Worth, TX) announced that they will join the conference in all sports on July 1, 2012.
When the BIG EAST announced that they would seek to add two football-playing members after meetings in Philadelphia earlier this month, nobody knew how long the process would take or exactly which schools were being considered.
Though TCU would seem to be a poor geographical fit for the conference, they come bearing a number of gifts that make the extra travel involved worth it for the conference:
1) Dallas/Fort Worth
Though the dead horse has been rather brutally beaten over the past few months, the important thing to remember is that conference alignments have much more to do with television dollars than rivalry and geography these days. There are a few factors that can help increase television dollars, but one of the biggest among them is markets.
Dallas/Fort Worth is the 5th-largest television market in the country. Adding it would instantly add about 2.5million television households to the BIG EAST footprint -- not a bad place to be. Other than the debatable-presence in the New York market, Dallas instantly becomes the largest market on the football side of the BIG EAST.
TV screens, even indifferent ones, become even more important if the BIG EAST chooses to follow the path of the Big Ten in creating a cable network. The goal would be to sell the channel onto the basic tier in BIG EAST markets and lock up a fee that would be charged uniformly to all cable subscribers in those markets (at least 90% of American homes have cable or satellite television). Such a network could debut on basic cable in 20-30million homes, each constituting a fee of perhaps $0.50 each (the Big Ten Network earns $0.75/household inside its geographic footprint), or $10-15million per month.
That's over $120million in revenue before you even account for advertising sales and any supplementary deals with ESPN or broadcast networks to carry some games as well. Even divided by 17, it could be a much-improved haul if pulled off.
2) Inventory and intrigue
In addition to TV markets, the other important factors in television revenue are inventory and intrigue. More teams will generate inventory -- the total number of games/events that you are able to "sell" for broadcast. Though not all games are created equal, games are programming that fills "airwaves" and keeps a picture on screens.
Inventory is particularly important if the goal is to form a conference-owned cable network. While ESPN can currently pick and choose among a myriad of NCAA football and basketball games, a conference network will be constantly in need of programming. More schools would mean more programming for the network (and fewer DePaul games on "the Ocho" -- ESPN3.com).
Intrigue is what gets the big payouts, however. TCU's non-AQ national title bid as well as Boise State's have garnered a lot of media attention for the program. Attention that the BIG EAST hopes will transfer to their conference tilts with Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
If TCU can be a consistent BCS contender, it will add a new level of meaning and importance to conference games -- and that translates directly into viewer eyeballs and TV money.
3) Street Cred.
The BIG EAST has a serious image problem when it comes to football. Despite outperforming the Big XII overall in the last few years (the current season excepted), the conference has been widely regarded as the weakest BCS automatic qualifier lately (and sending a four-loss team to a BCS bowl this season won't help). Though the BIG EAST has never been in danger of losing it's AQ status with the BCS, the conference needed an infusion of respect.
TCU's recent run up the BCS rankings, which included an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl last year and a distant chance of appearing in this year's National Championship game (and certainly another BCS bowl) will add instant credibility to the Rodney Dangerfield of football conferences. Those strong seasons over the last few years will also only go to make the BIG EAST look even stronger when the BCS review period ends.
4) That scheduling thing
TCU provides a 9th conference member and a nice tidy 8-game schedule upon their arrival. The Big East schools struggle with scheduling at the moment, having to fill more open dates than any other major conference. This often leads to weaker non-conference schedules -- including some (like Syracuse) that play two FCS opponents.
Weak out of conference scheduling hurts even good BIG EAST teams when it comes to the BCS standings.
So... Villanova Football: In or Out?
THE Question. According to Vince Nicastro, the Wildcats' timeline to decide remains unaltered by the news, and that makes sense. The timeline didn't become any shorter when the conference first announced it's plan to expand -- whether the 17th member was TCU or UCF, Villanova knew this move was coming.
What it does, however, is give the Big East added incentive to turn the thermostat up a few notches on the Main Line. The expansion has begun, and surely the football members are hoping to complete the process soon. Furthermore, the Catholic schools were put on notice by TCU's all-sports offer that the next football member will either be an 18th all-sports member or Villanova -- and given their druthers, everyone involved would prefer that it be 'Nova.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Villanova administration will maintain it's course and not rush into giving a response earlier the stated timeline.
Adding TCU, however, does alter Villanova's perspective a bit. TCU was the Big Fish in the non-AQ pond -- a BCS-ready program with enough media interest to be a sure-fire net-benefit to the conference. The Horned Frogs surely put more money in the pot than, say, Central Florida.
The criteria being examined, as outlined by Father Donohue, won't change because of this announcement. The effect on the Strategic Plan will still be a factor -- but that effect will lessen with a larger revenue stream from football allowing the school to pay off any upfront costs sooner. The addition of TCU would also likely bring more positive exposure to the BIG EAST and to it's football schools.
Not to mention that in terms of size, the Big East has chosen to add a school that is comparable (at 8,696 students, mostly undergraduates) to Villanova. TCU is in-fact a near-perfect institutional fit for Villanova as a small private University with good academics and a Christian mission.
In fact, TCU would make a great rival for Villanova in the conference -- not that rivalry is a factor in these proceedings.
There are serious doubts going forward that a 17-team or 18-team conference can survive. 18-teams could very-likely be a prelude to a split. If the 'Cats want to stay on the high-revenue side of any such split-up, they will have to bring football to the conference.
At the very least, if Villanova chooses to keep football in the non-revenue FCS, it opens the possibility that the BIG EAST will pursue Temple as an all-sports member to help deliver the 4th-ranked Philadelphia market. Temple competing at the same level in basketball in Villanova's backyard could be very damaging to the 'Nova program -- giving them not only greater financial resources (state subsidy), but the same BIG EAST brand to stamp on their product.
With 61 of 66 current power conference football programs operating in the black, and only one losing more money than the $4-5million Villanova already loses in the CAA, it is hard to see how a move to the BIG EAST would damage the university, especially with TCU's addition virtually guaranteeing the Big East a raise in revenue going forward.
Though it won't directly affect Villanova, the Mountain West Conference loses yet another marquee program with this move. It's likely that they will survive by adding Hawaii from the WAC, but what will happen to the remains of the WAC?
The WAC was last seen trying to recruit North Texas from the Sun Belt and Montana from the Big Sky. Both schools have reportedly opted to stay put with their current conference affiliations (moreso a vote of no-confidence in the state of the WAC than a love of their current situation, I am sure). The WAC will likely be left with Louisiana Tech, Idaho, New Mexico State and San Jose State, along with new members UT-San Antonio, Texas State and Denver -- but the conference champion now may not qualify for an automatic NCAA tournament bid until two years after the reinforcements arrive because of an NCAA rule that requires that five conference members be continuously competing together over a two-year period.
The WAC is hoping that a potential January NCAA legislative change will allow them to retain their automatic bid status.
UPDATE (11:30am): It is being reported this morning that UMass will accept an invitation to join the MAC for football, joining Temple as an A10 all-sports/MAC football member. With URI already slated to de-emphasize football in the Northeast Conference, this move will leave only New Hampshire and Maine as CAA schools north of Philadelphia. Can their departure be very far behind?
The CAA football conference is undergoing a period of dramatic change. It seems that almost every member is eager to explore options to move up to FBS or down to the NEC or Patriot League levels of football.
With UMass heading to the MAC, could Delaware or JMU pull the trigger on their own intention to move up as well?