John Marinatto just jumped ship at the point of the bayonet being wielded by the presidents of the universities aligned in the Big East Conference. And so now I’ve been tasked to clean up this mess that has been left behind. What should I do… what can I do?! Well, there are three factors that must be considered when looking at what to do with this convoluted situation.
First, the league has always been centered on basketball, though that has become an antiquated concept in a football-driven collegiate sports landscape. The secret to Big East success is sustaining basketball dominance while maintaining football relevance. Haphazardly hunting for any school that could bolster its BCS claim has left the conference withdrawn from any coherent mission; that must be rectified if a logical plan is to be laid down.
Second, programs — for contraction or for expansion — must be viewed through a lens that incorporates long-term potential for success. Schools must be relevant in football or in basketball, if not both, to remain valuable to the league. It must assess if bigger is indeed better, or if a concentration of talents could turn the league into a more marketable product.
Third, moves must be both relevant and within reason. At this point the Big East is a hunted conference, not a hunter of teams. The goal is to stabilize the situation, not to overwhelm things and provoke a further poaching of our most talented teams for the benefit of other conferences.
So what would I do?
1. Solidify the football membership. The Big East was founded with a basketball purpose in mind. But the league is losing cornerstone membership, teams with strong basketball pedigrees like Syracuse, not because of basketball but because of the state of football in the conference. Without a viable football league, the Big East is just another mid-major like the Mountain West — or it could risk sliding into non-football obsolescence, another Atlantic 10 to be heard from only come tourney time.
The problem with playing to appease the Georgetowns and the Villanovas and the Marquettes of the Big East is that it drives away teams like Syracuse and Pitt and West Virginia, teams which are viable contenders in both football and basketball. As commissioner I would focus on ensuring football stability for the league…
Currently the league stands at thirteen football members:
|San Diego State||Temple|
There is the ability to run a conference championship game. But now the conference suffers from MAC-like imbalance, with thirteen teams making unwieldy, unbalanced divisions. What the team needs is a fourteenth football member to balance out the divisions. It could pursue a team like, say, Tulsa, which has won at least eight football games in six of the past seven seasons and has won at least eighteen basketball games in six consecutive despite missing the NCAA Tournament each year. But there are assets right within the conference that are underutilized.
2. Solve the Notre Dame question. The push now becomes figuring out how to convince Notre Dame to join the fold as a full conference member. In such a scenario, convincing the Irish that they have to beat the Western Division every year would provide reciprocal benefit. The Golden Domers are simply too huge a football asset to allow to enjoy ancillary conference benefits without enriching the entirety of the group. When they join, Notre Dame finally makes the most logical fit and joins a conference with which it is already affiliated. It would provide residual benefits heading into the next TV negotiations (more soon on that). And if the Irish are “afraid” to take on the challenge (and travel) of playing Boise State and Houston and Louisville and San Diego State every year, the conferences could be aligned to further disperse the football talent entering the league (and spread the travel equally between the two divisions):
|Boise State||San Diego State|
|Notre Dame||South Florida|
In either divisional format, there is not enough competition to prevent Notre Dame from becoming a perennial powerhouse. Especially in the North-South format, which would be favored under this plan for the competitive travel balance, only Boise State presents a viable contender for the divisional throne. This presents a stronger long-term case for the Irish to reach higher-tier bowl games even with several losses than their current standing.
The problem in Notre Dame’s case is their historical perception versus their recent performance. Joining a conference provides an avenue for the divisional and conference championships that bolster a team’s credibility. The Big East has enriched Fighting Irish basketball since 1995; the league can do the same for football by presenting a clear-cut avenue to inclusion in a national title discussion that does not necessarily require the perfection an independent must muster for consideration. And it isn’t like their independence has made them richer; while their exclusive NBC deal was landmark in 1991, it now yields less money than teams that dwell in the cellar of the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, Big XII and ACC (see more below).
3. Restructure basketball in the conference. By integrating Notre Dame into the fold, there are now eighteen basketball members in the conference. Currently, every team is scheduled to play the NCAA-maximum eighteen conference games in the Big East. To get to that number, teams would have to divide into divisions and then play common opponents across the divide. So, because basketball with its longer schedule should facilitate the least travel possible, I would divide the basketball league into three divisions:
In such a format, you would have home-and-away series against the other five teams in your division. To get the other eight games, teams would rotate home and away games against the other two divisions, playing four teams annually from each. That way you could be guaranteed of playing a home-and-away series against every conference opponent within a three-year window.
Three well-balanced basketball divisions can provide the top seeds for the conference tournament, and the new full-member additions to the league are dispersed in such a manner that they don’t dilute the diversity of basketball talent already in the Big East. And some in their own right strengthen the divisions (see: Memphis).
4. Negotiate a new TV deal that gains the most money from both football and basketball. With newly constituted divisions, I would walk into TV negotiations for basketball with the knowledge that the losses sustained have not substantively weakened the overall strength of the product to present. By replacing the loss of 2012 NCAA Tournament participants Syracuse and West Virginia with fellow March Madness contenders Memphis and Temple, there is no net loss despite the fact one was a charter member back in 1979. So was Boston College, and having them poached by the ACC did little to damage the league overall. As far as football goes, only West Virginia truly presents a major loss of any import on a national scale, and the league has done more than enough just with the addition of Boise State and Notre Dame to make up for that loss.
To set precedent for negotiating purposes, let’s first look at the money in recent conference deals:
Right now, these are the standard-bearer contracts for which conferences are striving. If the Big East cannot provide at least this amount to its member teams, especially given the increased costs of travel being introduced to the football schedule, it is doomed to obsolescence.
The key is negotiating from two positions of strength — by dividing and conquering with separate football and basketball contracts. Given the 10-year, $300m contract the ACC was able to sign with Raycom in 2001, and the explosion in value of live sports as DVR technology has made them the last bastion of regular commercial viewership, a 3-division, 18-team Big East can command at least quadruple that quantity. A conservative estimate, the negotiating floor, could realistically be set at 12 years and $1.2b for a Big East basketball league that orbits around perennial contenders Memphis, Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, and UConn and the secondary challengers that regularly emerge among the rest of a talented pool.
Looking at football, the golden cow for any conference, the loss of Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia has been easily mitigated by the addition of Boise State, San Diego State and the C-USA schools for a net gain. Then you throw in the addition of Notre Dame, the team that has been a diminishing return for NBC but is still the object of lust for any network executive, and potential revenues skyrocket. Those assets alone are worth another several billion alone; a conservative floor for negotiations in a 12-year window would be $2.5b for football, considering the coast-to-coast viewership.
With teams in five of the top seven metropolitan areas in the United States, there are plenty of eyeballs to attract network dollars. Thirteen of the top 50 markets in the nation are represented among the assembled teams. And with the two contracts, money can be divided equitably among schools which participate in one sport but not the other. The breakdown would work as such:
Wholly reasonable at their face, these are the most conservative estimates. The ability to make twice the money NBC offers annually should easily make the offer more attractive to Notre Dame, especially since joining a conference wouldn’t mean taking on a Big Ten or Big XII schedule every season. The potential for even more money is there as well… as long as we’re not forced to settle for the lowest legitimate offer possible.
(And with NBC now on the table with Notre Dame out of their hands, a more diverse product that includes Notre Dame as well as all those major markets — not to mention the need to fill programming on more satellite networks with the rebranding of Versus as NBC Sports Network — could easily get them to bid above this range, pushing the offers to a more lucrative level from every other network as well.)
Why would this work? Think about it… if the ACC can add two schools, Pitt and Syracuse, which bolster an already-strong basketball product but do little to strengthen an already-lagging top-tier football league and gain $4.1m annually for each of its teams in TV renegotiations, there is no conceivable reason why a logical negotiation based in the value inherent in both the football and basketball products of the Big East cannot command more.
This stabilizes the conference without resorting to a naked grab for whatever commodity is available. It is rational enough to think a Notre Dame athletic department that has softened over the years on other steadfast Irish codicils (see: 5-year commitments to its coaches, playoff prohibitions, et.al.) would recognize the sensibility from both a fiscal and competitive standpoint in joining this specific conference before their relevance is swallowed in a burgeoning playoff movement in a conference-centric college football universe.
It preserves the original basketball legacy of the league while simultaneously positioning it to gain rather than lose from football. In both sports the Big East is postured under this four-point plan to be competitive on a national level, with powerhouses and strong mid-tier programs alike to spearhead the league’s belated movement into the 21st century and beyond. The key is in recognizing that one size does not fit all, and the mess left by Marinatto in the conference’s purge-and-binge of realignment prior to my arrival would be best mitigated by taking advantage of both sports’ strengths.
Thusly we can move the Big East forward from its recent past as a basketball-strong and football-deficient conference. These tweaks format both sides to provide the greatest revenue stream for all… and in the current college-sports landscape, if you aren’t generating revenue you are in a death spiral. This plan provides the roadmap to end the league’s current tailspin.
Thank you for reading… comments and your vote can be left [HERE].