I have written a number of very in-depth articles on Big East expansion over the past two years, and as I was working on a Bleacher Report editorial on the current impending shifts in the FBS world, it became apparent it was time for another. When I started looking at the potential impact of the Big East adding East Carolina University, I was floored by what jumped out to me. As I wrote, the subject quickly demanded its own editorial.
I think you will find after reading this article that it is shockingly obvious at this point that East Carolina should be admitted to the Big East immediately. In fact, in this changing landscape it is just foolish to keep them out.
I'll make my case.
The are far more reasons to add ECU at this point than to keep them out. Here are ten of them.
1.) The Big East has a perception problem among eastern fans. Adding western schools SDSU and Boise State opened the Big East up to a lot of ridicule in their footprint, and weakened one of the Big East's best arguments for continued BCS Automatic Qualifier status—having an identity as the conference of the northeast.
Adding Temple and Memphis helped a little. Adding ECU helps recast the Big East as just what the name implies—a conference with a massive geographic footprint that covers most of the eastern US, encompassing the best of the rest of the non-power conference schools. ECU is the best football draw in the East that is not in a BCS conference. Adding ECU clarifies the BE's new argument for BCS AQ inclusion to fans and the BCS elite and helps the conference reclaim its eastern identity.
2.) ECU basketball is a slumbering giant which could spring to life in the Big East. ECU is smack dab in the middle of basketball country. Given that North Carolina is within the Big East footprint and that many of the basketball programs in the Big East are as good or better than those in the ACC, it is effectively stupid to not have an outpost in that state for basketball recruiting purposes.
If ECU had a Big East TV payout, they could easily pay a hot local name who coaches a fun style of play—like VCU's Shaka Smart—$2-3 million a year to join ECU in this great basketball conference. That could be the condition of their admission. In that environment,and under those circumstances, ECU could easily become an annual tourney team.
3.) The member count. By my count, Philadelphia-based Temple will be football member No.12 and Navy will be No.13. Now as part of what appears to be a deal for OKing the addition of Temple, there is a pending, time-sensitive, conditional offer for Philadelphia-based Villanova to upgrade, effectively becoming member No.14.
Adding ECU immediately would not necessarily impact Villanova getting in. If nothing else, that would help matters by helping create a perception of scarcity of slots and maybe making Villanova boosters and Philadelphia lawmakers feel they might be getting squeezed out of their side-deal for admitting Temple. It could light a fire under Villanova to take that 15th spot. That could in turn light a fire under the Big East's preferred choice, Air Force, to take the 16th slot or lose out to the emerging FBS program at UMASS. Slot scarcity is a great motivator.
4.) TV loves proven, measured fans, not just appealing big markets. While it was very smart to add top 10 markets like Dallas, Houston, and Philadelphia, looking at attendance numbers, it is a fair comment to say that SMU, Houston and Temple have underdeveloped fan bases. At a point, that becomes a bigger issue in TV negotiations.
I think the Big East should not want to enter their TV negotiations without ECU on board. ECU is very underrated in this regard. They draw very large turnouts (and given sell through rates likely could draw better numbers with a stadium expansion). Their fans may be the most passionate college football fans in North Carolina and may be significantly larger than even their attendance suggests. Their university is in a smaller city, so a large portion of their graduates and local fans relocate to other North Carolina metro areas. This is a school with a legitimate argument to a state-wide following.
TV networks know that schools will bring attention in local DMAs. They like to see schools who can bring attention in additional DMAs. The Big East doesn't have a lot of that. ECU has done that with regularity in the past. Add that to the fact that North Carolina is a very populous state with several very good DMAs and there are reasons in TV terms to add them. They would help sew the outlying Florida giants into the greater Big East TV offering. There is every reason for me to believe ECU would outperform the average existing BE members in terms of audience delivered. It seems very unlikely that adding ECU is going to negatively impact the TV shares in the Big East.
5.) None of the North Carolina schools in the ACC have become dominant in football. There is a perception that they are all "basketball schools". ECU is perceived to be a "football school". It is entirely possible that at the BCS AQ level, ECU could start taking a far larger share of in-state talent than they are today. How good would they be then?
6.) What happens if the AQ designation goes away? If there are no status-based affiliations with elite bowls, it comes down to how many schools in your conference can sell enough bowl game tickets to appeal to the big money bowls. Those associations do a lot to make your argument of peer status to the BCS elites. How many of the teams of the new Big East can sell 25-45,000 seats to a bowl game? I count two to three at the most. ECU would be a much needed fourth.
7.) Where are the bowls? Bowls are a significant revenue stream. Most bowls are located in the sun belt. The Big East has two appealing bowl candidates in Florida who have bowl-level programs that would appeal to Florida bowls, but the rest of the conference is not that appealing to the southeastern bowls. (Boise State is an appealing curiosity to unaffiliated fans as long as they are winning 10-plus games a year, but there is no guarantee they will be able to maintain that standard.) There are a lot of bowls within a reasonable distance (1-3 states) of ECU who would likely pass on today's Big East, who would be more receptive to the Big East if it opened the possibility of ECU every other year (and maybe an occasional appearance by Memphis). Given that ECU, UCF, and USF are all annual bowl teams with large fan bases, the trio would probably guarantee an on-going annual association with three of the bigger money bowls in the region for the new Big East.
8.) It widens the gap between the Big East and the MWC/CUSA. ECU is one of the best draws remaining in the MWC/CUSA and one of their best football teams. Taking ECU out hurts the merged conference's ability to get into the better money of southeastern bowls and hurts the perception of the merged conference by the BCS decision makers. The merged conference joining the BCS AQ ranks could further diminish the Big East's stature.
9.) It protects the Big East from future raids, creating another appearance of instability at the conference level. The troubles of the last two years hurt the perception of the Big East as an AQ conference. The threat of raids will always be out there. Having the ability to lose up to two schools (Louisville? Rutgers? UConn?) and still be at 12 football playing members with likely associations with three very good money bowl games is an optimal position for the Big East going forward.
10.) It could help the BCS elite control the potentially destructive emergence of the MWC/CUSA merger on the non-AQ conferences' status quo. Realignment is a series of domino drops. If you can take a domino off the floor, it can stop a whole bunch of them from falling. The Big East taking ECU could actually trigger a series of non-moves that could save the Western Athletic conference as an FBS conference. That would actually be a very good thing for the BCS elite. Helping out the guys who run the show never hurts your ability to stay in the show. This final point will be the subject of my next Bleacher Report editorial on realignment—"Should the BCS Elite save the Western Athletic Conference?".