Mike Tranghese was out of the spotlight for a while after he stepped down as the Big East commissioner. When the conference started to realign and rebuild almost a year ago, however, the former conference boss stepped back into the spotlight to offer his opinion on the conference he left behind years ago. The problem is, that in those interceding years, Tranghese lost touch with the college sports landscape. His most recent comments have set the internet aflutter with controversy, but they couldn't be more off-base.
"I thought that the basketball and football schools coexisted beautifully up to the point when Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia departed," Tranghese told the NY Times on Monday. "At that point, I thought the basketball schools ought to take a real hard look. Whether they’re going to, I don’t know."
Suggesting as he did, that the basketball schools of the Big East — Providence, Seton Hall, DePaul, St. John's, Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova — would seriously consider splintering from the conference to form a new league, has many on the internet debating the possibility. As the Providence Journal has noted, relations between the football and non-football sides of the conference are not at war with each other, and the basketball schools have tended to approve measures that the football schools claim they require to move forward to a more lucrative future for everyone.
Villanova and Georgetown in particular (but they are not alone in this) have no interest in leaving the newly reconstructed Big East conference. Perhaps an offer to play in the "New" ACC would tempt those schools, but barring such a power-conference move, the feelings of administrators lean heavily toward the big TV money and exposure that the Big East conference can afford — even with SMU and Houston on board. TV revenue more than covers the cost of flights and the new footprint puts these schools' brands in new markets.
If a split were coming, the Providence Journal argues, the basketball schools would have blocked bids for UCF, SMU and other new football-first members.
A fracture between the basketball and football schools has been predicted by observers for almost two decades now. So far, despite changes on the football side of the conference, the oft-predicted split has never been as close as speculators think.
That hasn't stopped now-outsider, Tranghese's quote from pushing the Boston Globe's Mark Blaudschun from writing that John Marinatto's resignation (reportedly encouraged by the basketball schools) was a signal that the hoops contingent would split apart. Blaudschun's take on the issue reads like the kind of speculation that is discussed on Twitter or messageboards and quickly shot down by people in the know.
A Tennessee-based blogger who focuses on the SEC (and on finding new ways to insult "lesser" conferences like the Big East) takes it a step further. He suggests that the basketball schools not only split, but expand nationally, all the way to Spokane, Washington, to add Gonzaga (over 2,000 miles from a few of the members he proposed for a "Catholic West" division). That model would include almost all of the best Catholic school basketball programs in the country — and it could possibly bankrupt each and every one of them.
Big East basketball has some great brands among the non-football schools and brings plenty of value, but that value is multiplied tremendously by being joined at the hip with the football schools. Alone, a basketball-only league would likely generate much-lower television revenues (perhaps better than the Atlantic 10, but not significantly) and certainly not enough to support the nationwide travel required to build a conference that included schools on both coasts.
Success in college sport is directly tied to money-spent and small private schools can't afford to offer a robust and well-funded athletics program without money coming in to cover the costs. There are exceptions, Butler got to the NCAA title game twice on a budget dwarfed by the likes of Marquette. They also had some very good under-the-radar prospects on those teams, including an NBA Draft lottery pick. They missed the NCAA tournament in 2012 after 7 conference losses and a fourth-place finish in the one-bid Horizon League.
Big East basketball-only schools may all be running to the National Championship game annually, but they are able to produce consistent success because they are big spenders. Most of the programs also turn a profit on the sport and are able to put money back into their other athletic programs.
The average revenue per Big East basketball program is $9,632,644, while Atlantic 10 schools generate just $3,898,769 from men's basketball. Schools like Xavier have strong enough local support that allow them to generate significantly more revenue than most in the league, but if they spent at the same level as Marquette or Georgetown, they'd likely break even or lose money on basketball.
When you hear conference realignment rumors, it is best to keep two things in mind: (1) College presidents aren't widely known as risk-takers and (2) with rising costs of competing, guaranteed revenue is the most important factor in all athletics decisions.
In the case of the Big East Catholic schools, the formation of a new basketball-only league would be a tremendous risk. Nobody can tell you exactly what the television value of that league would be, but few believe it would be better than what the current Big East offers. Furthermore, most people expect that the Big East, even with the departures of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, and the import of five new full members (and three football-only members), will get a significant increase in television revenue soon.
Why? There are more hours of sports television to fill on cable networks than ever before. ESPN runs multiple channels including the ABC Network's sports programming and CBS, NBC and Fox are all entering the all-sports cable network marketplace. Then there are regional networks and conference-specific networks and a myriad of digital outlets hungry for programming.
Demand is high, and supply is still limited. The NBC Sports Network is so hungry for college sports programming that they have guaranteed FCS leagues nationally-broadcast games — the CAA will have 5 of them, while the Ivy League will have 6. The reconstructed Big East will be the 6th-best football conference in the country and will remain among the best basketball brands and products — that package has to be enticing for a network with airtime to fill, and the more bidders, the higher the price tag.
Media consultant and former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson told the NY Times that the Big East could surpass the approximately $155 million-per-year deal it turned down last spring.
"I think if they stay together and negotiate as a single unit, I think they can come away with a reasonably favorable result," Pilson told the Times. "Even more than what ESPN offered a year and a half ago. I think the competition will drive it."
College presidents will always choose to take the least-risky path to the most money possible. Splitting would be contrary to those tendencies.