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Expansion Apocalypse: Settling Down?

While the CAA football conference continues to lose it's northern members, the BIG EAST membership appears to be stable for now.

At the conclusion of the regular season the University of Rhode Island announced that they were leaving the CAA to join the Northeast Conference for football. The move allows them to join a football conference that is more geographically compact and without the trial-by-fire that the CAA represents. UMass has also been rumored to be on their way out of the conference, with an offer from the MAC on the table.

With UMass and Rhode Island on the way out, New Hampshire and Maine are now increasingly isolated from the rest of the CAA and may be looking to make a move themselves. That scenario would leave the CAA with 8 football members, and only seven if Villanova moves up to FBS.

Bigger news came on Sunday from the Big Ten, however, when they announced that they are not pursuing any further expansion in the immediate future. This was the direct result of the completion of their expansion study, which concluded that the addition of teams beyond Nebraska would not be a net benefit to the conference.

Conference expansion was initially expected to blow the BIG EAST conference to smithereens, but with the Big Ten's announcement, it appears that the conference is in no danger of being raided by another power-conference.

With the addition of TCU, the BIG EAST goes from being the biggest projected loser in conference expansion to being among the winners with the addition of TCU adding a large new market and football credibility to the conference. The plan is for the BIG EAST to continue the expansion to add at least one more football playing member.

Will Big Ten announcement affect Villanova's looming football decision? It is very possible that it will be a consideration going forward, but this will be a multifaceted decision for the Board of Trustees.

The scare created by the threat of a raid was enough to raise the possibility that further moves by any conference could upset the balance and jeopardize the health of Villanova basketball. Even more so than that, however, the strength of Villanova football right now and the changing landscape of college athletics likely still makes the football upgrade a move worthy of serious consideration.

Protect Basketball

Without the immediate threat of a Big Ten raid, some might believe that Villanova's alignment in a basketball power conference is safe, but that may not be true. While the Big Ten is done expanding for the moment, expansion overall may not be. The Big XII was hit hard and will need to add two more teams to get back their lucrative conference championship game.

Even if no other power conference expands again, the BIG EAST will, and while 10 football schools is the immediate goal, 12 is the ultimate target. To get to 10 teams without adding Villanova football the conference is likely going to move to 18 all-sports members. To get to 12 without a split, they would need to go to 20 all-sports members. A 20-team conference would probably not be workable either logistically or financially unless the conference added a few blockbuster hoops programs in the process.

With West Virginia's athletic director Oliver Luck admitting that there is a "consensus" to eventually go to 12 football members, the possibility of a Big East split is certainly still real. Nobody really knows what that would do to the Villanova basketball program, but it certainly would be undesirable to be split away from conference rivals like Syracuse, UConn, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Turn football into a revenue sport

Currently Villanova football loses somewhere between $4 and $5 million per year on a football program at the FCS level. It is almost impossible to to make money in FCS football -- only two (of 125) programs have reported a profit on the sport.

In a BCS conference, however, though the expenses are higher, so are the revenues. Out of the 66 current BCS football programs, 61 operated in the black according to the most recent Department of Education report. Most importantly, in start contrast to the situation in FCS football, 77 out of 120 FBS members turned a profit.

There is almost no hope of ever operating in the black as a FCS football program, which means that football at that level will always take millions of dollars every year away from academic programs due to it's need for an institutional subsidy.

If a BCS-level football team could generate enough revenue to cover expenses, or even if the shortfall were decreased, it would be as good as a donation to the academic side. The average loss in FBS football is less than $3million, and only one BCS school lost more than that figure. The largest football loss in the BIG EAST (two schools lost money) was $840,000.

The honey pot may get even sweeter in the BIG EAST -- the new-found "stability" in the conference alongside the addition of TCU (and potentially big-market school, Villanova) could allow the conference to negotiate a significantly-larger TV pay-out. perhaps even comparable to the ACC deal. Their current deal expires right before Villanova football would be able to upgrade to the FBS level and join the conference.

Times have changed a lot since Villanova was last asked to join BIG EAST football in 1997. The BCS didn't exist in it's current form until 1998, and since it's formation, the percentage of FBS bowl revenue going to BCS conference teams has exploded. The landscape is different than it was back then and so should be Villanova's decision.

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As an interesting side-note: Andy Talley recently ended his silence regarding a potential move for his program to the BIG EAST, and it seems like he anxious to bring his team to the BCS:

On Villanova contemplating a step up to the FBS division and accepting a bid to join the Big East for football: "Oh, I’d do it. Absolutely, I’d do it. I’m good to go. I was ready 12 years ago, when the Big East asked us and (Connecticut, which accepted) about it. The university is studying it very closely. We’d have to make some major upgrades. It would take a lot. But I’m ready. I’ve been ready. Let’s go."

OK, why?

"Well, it’s something you shoot for, to play at that level ... and we can do it. We have a national reputation. We can recruit anywhere. Our basketball program has given the Villanova name some clout around the country for a long time. So, we’re known ... everywhere."