Big East in the Post-BCS World #3: What Are the Big East's Best Assets?

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Big East in the Post-BCS World #3: What Are the Big East's Best Assets?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Basketball (and even SMU basketball under Larry Brown) can make or break the Big East in the near future.

Welcome to the third installment of a four-part series on the Big East in the post-BCS world. 

This installment will uncover those Big East assets which could impact the conference's position in the FBS world, as well as lay out in general how to optimally utilize those assets. 

Will the elite conferences of the FBS world continue to be a "Big Six" including the Big East, or will those elites continue down the path to being a "Big Five," as most reporters assume?

Will the Big East continue to be the worst of the elites (but continue to be a "have") or will they be seen as the kings of the FBS dregs and paid on a lower scale, the role the MWC used to own before the great realignment of 2010?

I think it all comes down to whether they use their assets to improve the perception of their conference.

The perception of strength in the Big East will not only affect their TV contract, but also additional revenue streams like bowl-game alliances and NCAA tournament units earned.  Blowing this moment in time could be devastating for the Big East's membership

(The latest news on the the Big East having to share a single slot into the big Bowls with the Mid-American, Sun Belt and Mountain West Conferences suggests that the Big East has already been relegated to being one of the "have-nots" of the FBS world.)

 

The Big East is not "on the side of history"
 
As we have discussed earlier in this series, the Big East is seeing their TV-rights negotiating leverage stripped away and the stature of their conference diminished in moves that seem to benefit the networks and the "Contract Conferences" (The Southeastern Conference, The Pac-12, The Big 10, The Big 12 and The ACC).
 
If the 13-football-member Big East jumps to sign a TV deal prematurely, it seems it will be an attempt to show access to real TV money for its candidate-target schools. Showcasing the potential TV revenue of a "national conference" has not allowed the Big East to entice BYU or Air Force to join as football-only members.

The downside to this strategy is that signing a deal today may not yield the money to entice BYU or another academy to join on their own. 

If it does not, signing such a deal may very well amount to the Big East membership essentially blowing control of their own destiny.  
 
For the Big East membership to allow the powers of the FBS world to diminish the Big East unchallenged hits me as foolish, when the Big East has huge assets they can leverage to change the playing field.


 
"OK, I'll bite.... What are these amazing assets of the Big East that no one else seems to acknowledge?"
 
To me, the Big East has 2 tremendously powerful assets.
 
1) They are still a pretty good basketball conference. They may still be the third-best basketball conference in America... but that is not a given.

The Big 12 and ACC appear to be clearly better today and the Big East may not prove to be as strong as they appear on paper. They may be putting too much faith in Memphis once again becoming an annual top-12-caliber team.

Additionally, the Atlantic 10, another conference that competes for the same Northeastern markets, has closed the gap in basketball by a good margin by adding two very good NCAA tournament coaches to their ranks.

The improvement of that conference could very well hurt the marketability of a weakened Big East.

2) The Big East has unmatched flexibility among conferences in deciding on conference size, as well as the locations and academic profiles of candidate schools. 

They no longer have to "look like an Automatic Qualifier Conference" to curry favor with other top conferences.

3) The Big East has near total control over the direction realignment takes in conferences below the Big East. (*See footnote at the end of the editorial for breaking news.)
 
For me, those three assets should allow the Big East to write their own ticket back into the ranks of the Contract Conferences, the "haves" of the FBS world.
 
Let's talk about those assets in depth and why beginning a larger expansion effort immediately should be the No. 1 priority of the Big East, not signing a TV deal.


 
Basketball strength
 
For NBC or Fox, likely potentially options to ESPN as broadcaster of Big East content, the ability to land one of the better basketball conferences out there is somewhat appealing. 

The Big East represents content of pretty good quality with decent fan support. But does a network overpay for "pretty good" and "decent"?
 
The strength of the Big East of the last few years is that they were the best basketball conference in America by a pretty strong margin. 

Every school in the conference was tested throughout the conference schedule in front of large hostile crowds. Then they were tested again in the Big East tournament against a much tougher series of opponents than teams in other conferences. 

They had to face a brutal gauntlet of coaches with NCAA tournament skins on the wall.  A Big East team faced a murderers' row of the best, most accomplished coaches in college basketball, headlined by Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins, Jaime Dixon, John Thompson III and Jay Wright. 

Any of those coaches would be ranked in the top three of any conference...and teams in the Big East had to play them all!  (And that isn't even mentioning Buzz Williams, Mike Brey, and Steve Lavin!)

These coaches are masters of squeezing out wins in tight games and have shown a regular ability to do so against similarly talented teams in the NCAA tournament. Several of these coaches have led their teams on repeated deep runs through the NCAA Tournament, and some have even won national titles.

Like SEC Football, that kind of competitive pressure-cooker created teams that did very well in the postseason, racking up tournament wins and the accompanying financial benefits, which represented a significant revenue stream for the conference.

Today, the Big East no longer has Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Jaime Dixon or Bob Huggins. Those are some great coaches who coached teams with very diverse styles. That coaching brain-drain will hurt the Big East's NCAA tournament revenue stream.
 
It seems unlikely today's Big East tournament representatives would be as well-tested as those of the ACC or Big 12.


 
The Flexibility of the Big East 

The Big East has already exceeded 12 members. Conferences generally stop at 8, 9, 10 or 12 members, as they are optimal totals for scheduling.

For member schools in most conferences, there is still a stronger inclination to try to retain more control over the direction of the conference with those smaller numerical alignments. 

This is balanced against the reality that the larger the geographic footprint, the more schools a conference needs to have to be more than a curiosity in key markets within the footprint. 

The Big East is more or less a curiosity in California and Texas, but has a good position in the Northeast and in Florida (where UCF and USF are two of the largest universities in the US).

Sadly, the empty distance between these regions really works against the Big East in developing their new identity as a national conference.

There is no obvious "optimal number of schools" for the Big East. There is no magic number that is likely to stop the kind of expansion they need. The member schools already have a lot of schools and are somewhat used to having a smaller voice in the Big East than in other conferences.

Furthermore, the mindset among the membership is unusual among conferences. All Big East members get that in order to satisfy their larger goals, the conference will have to have a larger membership than other conferences. The membership understands they will have to deal with any awkwardness brought on by a larger number of members. 

In fact, there are some strong voices in the Big East that have pushed for a larger membership in the recent past. 

Last year, Rutgers' AD Tim Pernetti was reportedly pushing for as many as 20 Olympic members. Former Commissioner John Marinatto also was on record as saying 20 Olympic members was an option for the Big East.

This suggests that Olympic membership numbers as large as 20 were openly discussed by the Big East membership.

On unnamed Big East source actually made the comment to Brett McMurphy in the previously linked article, "You can have 50 teams in basketball [in the conference]. It doesn't matter. That's why they have the NCAA tournament."

That is a very progressive view. In most conferences, one would not expect to see such a statement made to the press, even from an anonymous source.

While the Big East leadership today is talking of adding as little as a single football-only member, there is nothing to suggest the membership is as myopic about what the maximum total number of schools should be as the membership of a conference like the MWC or Sunbelt appear to be. 

That open-mindedness is a great asset, because 17 schools doesn't suggest a nationally relevant conference when eight of them are located in a 400-mile run in the northeast. 

The other schools do not include USC, and the Universities of Texas, Florida and Michigan. You can't expect the other nine to deliver solid, valuable media relevance across the rest of the nation.

With the size of the membership the Big East already has, the idea of adding enough members to form divisions with sensible travel and natural rivalries could appeal to a majority of their members, if the basketball TV payouts remain within the realm of their optimistic projections. 

I think that is workable.

One of the big forces against expansion above 12-14 members in a conference is the fear of schisms (i.e. a breakaway conference forming out of the strongest members, like when BYU and Utah cherry-picked from the Western Athletic Conference to form the Mountain West Conference). 

Well, in the case of the Big East, none of the schools would be in a better situation if they broke away.

The non-football members of the Big East are not as dominant in basketball as they once were. Losing Notre Dame was a huge blow to the value of their TV product, as well.  

If they broke away, they would simply be another Atlantic 10. No network is going to offer them $4 million per school annually for their Olympic sports. On top of that, travel would be harder and possibly more expensive.

Additionally, there appears to be a strong correlation between tournament invites and football playing members. Some might call it a media bias towards those conferences. The Big East Olympic members profit in that regard, earning more bids (and more tourney units) due to their association, while the Atlantic 10 members do not. 

The football members could breakaway, but then they would lose the big Northeastern markets. That would be devastating to their TV deals and their basketball exposure.

Come tourney time, both groups could see a loss of 1-2 bids if they split. That is a lot of additional money to leave on the table.

Should the Big East form a third, western division, there would be no danger of that division breaking away, either. Breaking away would amount to reforming the old MWC, and there just aren't enough TVs out there for that to make sense. 

The reality is there is no schism danger in this conference anymore, regardless of size. Not having those concerns is a great asset.

 

Control over the direction of realignment in the non-contract conference world 

Notre Dame's move really did the Big East a huge favor in one key way: it appears to have ended realignment in the five-contract conferences for the foreseeable future. 

With none of the contract conferences looking to expand, the decisions made by the Big East and the Big East alone among the power conferences could have the power to dictate the landscape in the Sunbelt, WAC, MWC and C-USA. 

This appears to be a factor that is very much overlooked in the Big East's current strategy. 

If the Big East wants to maximize their TV appeal and paint themselves as a hot asset that ESPN, Fox and NBC must have, differentiating themselves from C-USA and the MWC in terms of attendance and fan support is a smart move. 

I would argue it makes a ton of sense to pull the best draws from each conference to try to drop the average attendance in each conference and increase the average attendance in the Big East. 

Attendance is a strong indicator of the level of fan support and viewership potential. It obviously is also is a key factor for bowls. The better the bowl agreements, the more money the Big East will have coming in through that revenue stream.

A Big East Olympic share of the next TV deal might be worth $4 million. That is more than double the payout a full member of C-USA receives and more than four times the payout a MWC school receives.  Any school from either of those conferences would gladly accept a Big East Olympic membership.

It isn't the kiss of death for a MWC school to move their Olympic sports to the Big East. In accepting Hawaii,the MWC has already conceded to allow football-only members. 

If the MWC should suddenly change policies, the Big East could probably assist an FBS football independent to fill their schedule with Big East opponents.

Likewise, even if the Big East football product is seen as dramatically degraded, they are probably still going to get something north of a $4 million TV payout per football-only member. Any school in the MWC or C-USA would take that money to be a football-only member of the Big East. 

Furthermore, the sequence in which the Big East adds certain schools can dictate the moves of the conferences beneath them. This really is a key point that the Big East doesn't seem to be considering. 

For example, let's say the Big East decides to add New Mexico, Fresno State and Air Force, three MWC schools frequently mentioned by fans. I am not saying these schools are likely candidates; this is only an example to explain my point.

If the Big East adds Fresno State first and then waits,  it is very possible that UNM, Wyoming, Colorado State and Air Force might be a voting block pushing for the addition of a Texas School or two like Texas State and Lamar (or maybe even New Mexico State).  

On the flip-side, should the Big East try to land UNM and Air Force first, you might see the western schools have the upper hand and push for the addition of a couple California schools (Davis and Cal Poly) or mountain schools (Montana and Idaho). 

Which scenario creates a better perception of separation of quality between the Big East and the MWC?

When you add in the fact that the WAC is sitting out there with five members, a position that dictates that if their schools' leaderships aren't total boobs, they are likely pursuing some hushed backdoor communication with other conference commissioners investigating a merger with other conferences (the Summit League and Big Sky conference come to mind). There is room for a lot of steering of conference memberships below the Big East. 

This could create homes for Big East expansion candidates, if the choices are made in the right sequence. Moves in the right order by the Big East could create a great deal of separation between the Big East and the tier beneath them.

If the Big East is clever enough with who they invite and when, they can engineer voting majorities and manipulate decisions in the lower-level FBS conferences.

Optimally, they could leave a C-USA that is weaker than today's and three regional "gateway to the FBS" conferences functioning at MAC/Sun Belt levels. Think a MWC on the west coast, the MAC in the Great Lakes/Rust Belt area and the Sun Belt in Texas and deep south.

C-USA has already proven they will add schools directly from the FCS ranks, so you would have four conferences below the Big East level that will act as gateways for FCS upgrades.   

Adding schools from the FCS ranks in many ways spells out that your conference is a "have not." It makes sense for the Big East to steer the MWC, the only conference beneath the Big East in the pecking order that has never added a school from the FCS ranks, in that direction. 

These actions would accentuate the difference between the Big East and the other non-contract conferences.

That is smart strategy before the Big East signs the new TV deal, because it firmly moves the Big East back up in perception with the contract conferences on a totally higher plane than the rest of the non-contract conferences. 

In that, it greatly improves the chance that the Big East will again be treated as a "have" entering into TV and Bowl negotiations.

 

 Start by shaping the Basketball membership to force ESPN to be interested

ESPN appears to be laying a foundation that could allow the somewhat unlikely, but very disturbing idea of the five contract conferences eventually bailing out on the FBS world. 

Contract conferences with existing ESPN deals have already cherry-picked the best TV assets of the Big East. ESPN may genuinely like selling Boise State, but they seem unlikely to overpay dramatically for Boise State and the Big East.

In ESPN terms, the current membership of the Big East (and any further additions to their football offerings) may not be an asset ESPN feels any need to retain.  

If ESPN doesn't care about the Big East, it becomes strategically much easier for the contract conferences to imagine a future without the Big East. 

So to stay among the "haves," ESPN has to care about the Big East content, even if they are ultimately outbid in this go-round. The Big East needs ESPN to be a motivated bidder for more than just TV-deal reasons. 

I believe the only way the Big East can force ESPN down that road is to maximize the appeal of their conference as a basketball league by adding a number of well-supported, annual tournament teams to the conference.

The Big East needs more proven tourney coaches. A restocked basketball Big East could restore their competitive edge, which will in turn also yield more tournament money. And with more top basketball programs coming in, it would help the Big East Tournament to remain much higher profile than the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

If the Big East is again likely to own the NCAA tournament, that makes the Big East basketball product a must have for ESPN or NBC. Football will come along for the ride.

Big East football has little that is compelling for a broadcaster today. The teams draw poorly compared to teams in the contract conferences, and many of the Big East football programs are relatively short-lived, so you don't have the depth of committed fans to drive top ratings across the footprint. 

Loyal fan support is generally limited to native DMAs rather than entire states.

The fans of the Big East in their native northeast see this membership as contrived, and some are even embarrassed by this incarnation. That doesn't help.

There are few marketable rivalries in the conference, and it seems unlikely any will emerge soon.

The bowls will probably shy away in the future, reducing the conference's exposure even more.

Basketball is a little better. A pretty good basketball conference is nice, but ESPN can walk away from that. ESPN has plenty of pretty good basketball conferences in every region where the Big East can be relevant. 

The best basketball conference in America is a must-have for any network and is impossible for the five contract conferences to simply walk away from without seriously undermining any "contract conference-only" postseason basketball tournament they might imagine.

Allegedly, NBC was talking about offering a deal that netted each Big East basketball school $4 million for the broadcast rights to Olympic sports. Now that was before Notre Dame left, and the football product was compromised by the loss of the Orange Bowl.

But if the Big East offered a true nationwide product in basketball with strong tournament teams with great fan support in the West, it could amount to one-stop shopping for NBC for relevant NCAA sports content. They might still offer the same amount for a larger collection of schools.

Especially if ESPN, CBS and Fox were also motivated bidders.


Rebuilding basketball in general terms

There is no good reason to add an existing member's Olympic sports just to appease a football-only member.

Adding Boise State's Olympic sports to the Big East, for example, would represent such a move. There is only one defensible scenario for adding Boise State Olympic sports than I can even imagine, and it doesn't exist today.  

I do not advocate adding Boise State's Olympic sports in any way. 

The Big East has already paid the Big West to take Boise State's Olympic sports. Now that there is an active exit fee in place in the Big East, Boise State no longer has any significant leverage on the Big East.

But Boise State will try to get their Olympic sports in if the Big East adds any western Olympic members. It is just who they are.

A smart first step would be adopting a clear and sensible criteria on how to evaluate which candidate basketball programs to add to the Big East.  oing so would help to control internal bickering over expansion decisions. Every slot should impact the bottom line in an observable and measurable way.

To entice a network, the Big East has to have strong fanbases. In any revenue sport, one of the best ways to evaluate a fanbase is to look at attendance.

There are 348 schools who have played D1 basketball in the last 3 years. Only 43 of them average over 10,000 per game in that period. Only 61 average over 8,000.

While most of those 61 schools are in contract conferences or the basketball Big East, nine are not, including heavy hitter San Diego State lead by national title winning coach Steve Fisher. (Fisher is exactly the kind of coach this Big East needs to add. Why is SDSU basketball not in the Big East? Today the only answer is geography).

Some of those nine isolated elite programs represent a huge opportunity for the Big East.

I think the most sensible approach is to target schools who draw attendance numbers in excess of 8,000 per game (ideally 10,000) and regularly make the NCAA tournament. 

Any school below that number should have to have a tournament-proven elite coach who has made it to the third round in the tournament and is locked into a very lucrative, long-term deal.

Adding schools from that pool located in strong basketball regions can also make financial sense in recruiting terms. Better talent has a financial value in a number of ways.  Fans will tune in to watch an elite player. How far could a Jay Wright Villanova team go with an elite seven-footer?  All other factors being equal, better talents can win tourney games and championships and draw better ratings.

Allowing exceptions to a well thought out criteria, like Boise State's Olympic sports, would seem foolish.

 

What is the right number of basketball schools?

Most who advocate a larger expansion are thinking, "Add three schools for a maximum of 20 basketball schools = two divisions of 10."

I take a very non-standard view. For the Big East, 20 schools is still pounding a square peg into a round hole. You still have eight schools in a 400-mile shot in the northeast and potentially the rest of the membership trying to deliver the next 2,700 miles. The idea of flying those northeast schools to distant Florida in division play seems likely to undercut branding efforts.)

Even if you draw a line in the west at SMU, effectively cutting that mileage in half, you are still dealing with 1,400 miles. And that stretches north-south about 1,200 miles. 

This "Texas Eastward" strategy would not allow the Big East negotiators any credibility in claiming a "nationwide fan following", which I think is actually a very strong negotiating point for landing a good offer from NBC and forcing ESPN to be interested.

Would the Big East be able to offer good coverage in important markets in a Texas Eastward footprint? Maybe.

Would the resulting Texas Eastward conference represent an optimal appeal to fans and broadcasters?

I would say no.

 

The case for an unprecedented 24 basketball members

I know on the surface 24 members appears a ridiculously huge number, but it is an idea that has been seriously considered by FBS conferences, and recently.

Last year the MWC and Conference USA considered merging into a nationwide conference that was projected at some points to have something in the ballpark of 24 teams, and 24 football-playing members at that. They had hired consultants doing the legwork of formulating and evaluating the plan.

They recognized that they could better leverage their assets in TV terms by merging into a gigantic nationwide footprint. Ultimately, they decided not to merge due to the fact that NCAA rules worked against their efforts and would effectively strip them of some other revenue streams, reducing the positive impact of such a move.

One of the biggest hurdles was merging two existing conferences. This kind of roadblock would not happen in a Big East expansion to 24 Olympic members.

The concept of a nationwide conference with 20-30 members was not a failed concept.  A large membership was not the point that prevented this from occurring.

A nationwide conference that can deliver games throughout the day is a very good selling point.  It may not be possible to create a coherent and nationally followed nationwide conference with fewer than 20-24 teams.

I think in tailoring a solution for an organization, the best plans weigh assets and potential just as much as needs. If a plan doesn't maximize attributes in meeting goals, it is a weak plan.

The Big East has a cluster of eight Northeastern schools that fans in the Northeast recognize as "theirs." In selling the concept of a nationwide Big East,  the Big East is damaging that strong, established branding.  

It makes sense to give the Big East's core fanbases a division that "they own" as a touch-base to the classic Big East, in which they had an emotional investment.

With that in mind, you can't have eight schools (or actually nine schools today) covering the rest of the nation and expect to have any real national fan support or media appeal. There simply aren't enough markets, states, rivalries and fans to make that appeal to a network.

I think you need a third division of eight schools to restore regional sensibility to the conference.

Doing so would help the perception of the Big East in their core region. Much of the complaints from northeastern fans at the idea of adding western teams like Boise State and SDSU is that they clearly are distant, regional outliers added strictly for football reasons.

They may understand the reasons Boise State was added, but those additions read as contrived and are embarrassing for those northeastern fans when they talk to their local friends who follow the Big 10 or ACC.

That will work against ratings. Fans don't like apologizing for following a conference.

 

Three divisions can fix that kind of thinking from fans

Imagine a "classic Big East" division with the eight northeastern schools, a "Best of C-USA" division and a "Best of the Mountain West" division featuring the best schools of the WAC, MWC and other western conferences.

This allows the Big East to bring in another national-title-winning coach in San Diego State's Steve Fisher to highlight a western division.

That is branding you can sell to fans, bowls and networks. It has balance and would make logical sense to fans.

Three regionally sensible divisions underscores the fact that the Big East will have cherry-picked the best of the two conferences closest in stature.

This kind of setup is something historic fans of all three of those conferences would probably follow, which would make it very interesting to a broadcaster.

 

Football realignment isn't a piece of cake, either

There are factors on the football side of things that also dictate a specific number of schools.  For reasons I'll address in a minute in talking about the academies, the Big East cannot go with a matching number in football.

There are sensible reasons to look at a larger expansion on the football side, too, but there are many factors that cap the number of slots that potentially should be available.

Let's look at factors or problems on the football side.

 

Problem 1: Villanova has earned the right to chose to play football in the Big East, but the Wildcats upgrading from the FCS to the Big East represents an unwanted black eye for the conference today

I am not going to dress it up. 

Villanova football upgrading from the FCS to the Big East is a big problem for the conference.

At a time when the Big East is scraping to prove it isn't a "have-not conference," the last thing the conference needs is to add an FCS upgrade (like C-USA recently did).

On the flipside, Villanova has earned a ton of NCAA basketball units for this conference. In this way, they have put additional money into the conference coffers. Memphis didn't do that. UCF didn't do that. Houston and SMU didn't do that.

With that in mind, it is very understandable that Wildcat fans and administrators get mad when they are told they don't "deserve" to be in the football Big East.

From a Big East perspective in very real and measurable terms, Villanova has literally earned the right to make the decision on whether they want to move up.

And it should be noted that they are a well-coached team that won the FCS National title in 2009.

That said, there are problems for both parties with a Villanova upgrade.

Villanova Stadium, a 12,000 seat on-campus stadium, is too small for FBS competition. Possibly adding temporary seating just past the northwest end zone could expand capacity to 15,000 cheaply, but then Villanova is just on par with Idaho for the smallest-capacity stadium in the FBS ranks.

That still doesn't address a much-needed luxury-booth expansion either.

The core problem with Villanova Stadium is the location of the campus. The campus is located in Radnor Township. It appears to be a community that is very resistant to the idea of FBS football, due to traffic and new construction concerns.

Radnor Township is apparently not inclined to grant Villanova parking variances, something that would seem to be needed if the stadium was significantly expanded and additional parking and road work was resisted or delayed.

This hurdle has Villanova looking at transitioning into playing its games at a brand-new pro soccer stadium, PPL Park in Chester, 18 miles from campus. It is a nice, new stadium.

Villanova played a game against Delaware, a local FCS rival, in front of a little more than 14,000 fans at PPL in 2011. 

How would playing a whole season in Chester look?

In general, students do not commute from campus for games. If you look at the numbers, anything beyond two miles seems to generally create real attendance problems at FBS universities.

(Temple, a large university with an enrollment of almost 38,000 has trouble drawing large crowds of students to Lincoln Financial Field, six miles away. It is tough to leverage your student population into good attendance numbers in an off-campus stadium.)

Faced with the idea of Villanova playing football in Chester, many of the football playing members of the Big East balked on the admission of Villanova in 2011, an embarrassing situation that led the leadership at Villanova to publicly table the idea.

When the Big East began to mention the possibility of admitting Temple, Villanova fans were enraged at the idea that Temple might take their slot in the football Big East, relegating Villanova to the role of second fiddle. Villanova fans were justifiably upset, considering all the additional tournament money Villanova brought into the conference.

As part of an (apparent) deal to admit Temple in 2012, Villanova was given a deal where they could choose to upgrade in 3 years with the Big East, providing some financial aid to help the process. The deal gave Villanova administrators cover with fans who might not recognize the perceived necessity of adding Temple at that point.

The deal implies Villanova's leadership maintains an interest in upgrading football into the Big East, as well as suggests that most of the schools that complained about playing at PPL Park are likely no longer in the conference.

It also suggests that sometime before 2016, there may be an announcement of Villanova jumping from the FCS to the Big East. That seems to be a bad plan for everyone.

I think it is time for the Big East to offer Villanova a new deal.

Villanova needs to spend some time in the lower FBS world before getting into the Big East.

The conference can take Villanova as a poorly attended FBS football member, but in order to continue to differentiate the Big East from the lower-tier conferences, they need to wash the stink of FCS off the Wildcats first.

Plus Villanova needs time to either develop a reasonable fanbase at PPL Park or to work out a good traffic management plan at Villanova Stadium, perhaps better utilizing transit lines and school-provided shuttles? 

Dealing with MAC fan-support levels in the short term would be a good intermediate step towards dealing with larger crowds in an eventual Big East home.

I think a smart deal for all parties would be for the Big East Conference to help Villanova into the MAC.  Villanova can take Temple's old spot in that now-13-team football conference.

If there is any resistance from the MAC membership, a small donation from the Big East or some scheduling concessions could make that happen. (The MAC may not require anything. They may just be grateful to have a quality-replacement 14th member.)

Villanova is a prestigious school. Admitting the Wildcats as a football-only member could make a lot of sense for the MAC. Since adding academically impressive Northeastern schools like Buffalo and UMASS, the MAC is alleged to have its eyes on schools like Stonybrook, Delaware and James Madison. 

A Villanova short-term addition could grease the skids for the MAC to further cherry-pick the elite of the FCS northeast.

I think in return for Villanova jumping to the MAC and sitting out this round of Big East Football realignment, the Big East could put together a sweetheart deal for the Wildcats.

It makes sense to continue to offer to front-loan money to Villanova for an FBS move, but have that move be to the MAC instead of to the Big East. Everyone profits from such an action.

PPL Park is available, and at 18,000 seats is a solid capacity for a MAC outlier.

Popular regional Big East opponents could agree to eat some costs and do home-and-home series with Villanova. This would help to balance out challenging MAC attendance numbers. 

Playing Villanova home-and-home would be a bearable cost for Big East members Rutgers, Navy and UCONN (as well as candidate Army). Villanova is not an awful draw for those schools at their own home fields.

Those kinds of schools playing Villanova could bring a lot of healthy community pressure to possibly allow a moderate expansion of Villanova Stadium.

Another possibly viable option would be Temple working to change their lease with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles to allow Villanova to play their games at Lincoln Financial Field. 

Lincoln Financial Field is not a great stadium for Villanova's demonstratively small fanbase, but they could draw well vs. regional Big East foes and schools like Penn State and Pitt, pulling up their attendance average dramatically. Temple and Villanova already play an annual rivalry game, The Mayor's Cup game, at Lincoln Financial Field.

Villanova did ultimately agree to let Temple into the Big East. There could be a lot of pressure in the conference to do right by Villanova.  

What would get Villanova agree to jump to the MAC for now?  I think financially the football Big East members putting $1 million a year into a trust for Villanova to jump to the Big East, say five-to-15 years from now, would be a sensible payoff.

Remember Villanova has been generating more than a million dollars of additional NCAA tournament revenue each year for the Big East.  Additionally, the difference between burning a slot on Villanova football vs. inviting, say, ECU football would amount to far more than a million additional TV dollars to the conference each year.

Keeping that football slot open for a school the Big East needs more today than Villanova is worth a million dollars a year.

This kind of deal takes all the pressure off the Villanova leadership by giving Villanova fans a clear view of a pathway to full Big East membership on optimal terms.

It works for the football Big East in the short term by freeing up a slot for a more important TV asset today. Plus, it keeps the peace in the conference.

Long-term (say 10 years from now when Villanova is ready), having two FBS schools with moderate fan attendance in a Northeastern top-10 market is better than having just one.

 

Problem 2:  The Big East needs better football attendance and teams closer to the bowls to generate bowl agreements with the most lucrative bowls possible

This Big East is lousy for bowls.

Consider the locations of the bowls.

Now consider where the new Big East schools are located.

If Temple can only average 28,060 to a stadium six miles from their campus, why should a large southern bowl 500-1,500 miles away have faith in Temple bringing a crowd? 

Why should bowls like the BBVA Compass Bowl or the Belk Bowl want to continue to invite Big East schools?

UConn drew 36,668 last year. Cincinnati drew 32,293. Rutgers drew 43,761. Boise State drew 34,018.  Houston drew 31,731. SMU drew 20,894....

Are any of these schools likely to draw better in the new geographically-dispersed Big East than they did last year?

Why should a larger bowl want to risk getting stuck with a Big East school via a bowl arrangement?

The Belk Bowl is in a stadium that seats almost 74,000. Is there any indication that Houston's, SMU's, UConn's, SDSU's, or Temple's fanbases can sell half those seats?

With their current mix of teams, the Big East's bowl affiliation problems are likely to get worse, not better.

Larger bowls are reliant on selling out stadiums or coming close. Proximity to the bowls as well as factors like the size of fanbases and the length of time member schools have been drawing crowds at the top level of college football are important factors.

The Big East needs more schools that draw large crowds and have done so for many years and/or are in the south (where the bowls are located).

BYU with their large turnouts would help, but the need for more big draws suggests the need for a football membership that exceeds 16 members.

 

Problem 3: A lack of coverage in key areas

In the BCS AQ world, the BCS AQ conferences and the major bowls were allied to put together the BCS system. The Bowls favored schools with large turnouts and good records.  Most of the AQ conferences favor good academics among the AQ membership.

Houston and SMU may have been a good duo when the Big East needed to appear similar to other BCS AQ conferences, but they lose a bit of luster in the post-BCS world.

While it is great that they represent a presence in two top-10 markets, as covered in the last section, they don't draw very well.

Game attendance is a key to building a loyal fan base that is invested enough to regularly watch the games on TV each week. 

It is difficult to pull off in an NFL city. Both schools compete head-to-head with NFL teams for public ticket dollars and fan support, as well as with all the other entertainment options in a huge city.

That's manageable to a point if both schools consistently win. Fans in NFL cities follow winners at the FBS level. Both schools have been good lately and have seen their attendance numbers go up, but moving to the Big East could change the two Texas schools' winning ways. 

Houston, with its large enrollment, equates to a very large UH alumni base. That helps offset the presence of the NFL Texans.  SMU, on the other hand, has a relatively small enrollment.

While they are noteworthy in their native DMAs, those two schools do not equate to delivering statewide relevance in Texas. In Texas, the Big East is considered just another distant conference with some Texas outliers, no different from the Sun Belt, the SEC or the MWC back in the day. 

That just won't appeal to the unaffiliated Texan who prefers "local conferences," the Big 12, and to a lesser degree, Conference USA.

More support in Texas is something the Big East could really use, financially speaking.

There are more gaps in the conference footprint. The big gap between Navy and the Florida schools doesn't help. The gap between SMU, Boise State and San Diego State doesn't help either.

Adding BYU, Air Force and Army helps some of these issues, but there will still be huge gaps in the footprint where the Big East won't matter.

Those gaps will hurt the Big East in TV terms. 

It would be a big positive for branding of the Big East as a conference with a nationwide fan base if the Big East is capable of landing BYU, as well as two legitimate nationwide fan bases in Army and Navy, but it doesn't erase huge gaps of irrelevance within the conference footprint. 

That hurts the bottom line.

There are strong arguments to end up with more than 16 football playing members.

 

Problem 4: BYU and the Academies may require the Big East to add a rival in order to land them

BYU is in a pretty good situation today.  Do they really want to play in a division with Boise State, SDSU, SMU, Houston, Temple and Memphis each year? Or would they want more western members?

Army doesn't seem all too interested in joining the Big East after their trouble competing in Conference USA years ago. Many speculate that unless Air Force opts in, Army's position isn't changing.

Air Force already turned down the Big East over stated feelings of loyalty to their fellow MWC members, probably Colorado State, New Mexico and Wyoming. Is it smart to doubt the conviction of military leadership? Would the Big East have to offer a slot to another MWC school to land Air Force?

The Pac-10 had to offer to add five other members to have a legitimate shot at the University of Texas. Schools like BYU or Air Force may require more than just an invite for them.

These kinds of situations could require a few more football slots.

 

Problem 5: The academies like the exposure of going to bowls on a semi-regular basis

Usually one or two of the three FBS Military academies are bowl-eligible each year. To entice all three of the academies, that status quo also has to seem possible in the Big East. To get them to agree, all three have to feel they have a good shot to annually sniff a .500 regular-season finish (bowl eligibility) in a Big East schedule.

That combined with NCAA requirements for conference-title games allows some optimal membership numbers to come into focus. 

The NCAA allows conferences to play title games (a lucrative asset to sell to broadcasters) only if conferences have two divisions participating in round-robin play in each division.

With a general cap on the number of scheduled regular-season games at 12, it suggest that theoretically the maximum number of football teams the Big East could have in the conference would be 26, or two 13-team divisions.

Now obviously playing their entire schedule in division would totally isolate the Big East from the rest of the contract conferences, which is exactly what isn't desired or needed. 

Additionally every Big East school has a couple out-of-conference teams they would want to play every year. 

Finally, Army and Navy want to play Notre Dame (a likely loss) most years. Considering that in the Big East the academies would be playing teams with better overall talent in their starting units (than in those of the academies), the academies would want two or three out-of-conference games at minimum.

If they had two OOC games (leaving 10 games for the Big East and potentially 11 schools in each division), Army and Navy could schedule Notre Dame and an FBS school without an obviously serious commitment to play at this level (a patsy like Idaho or Eastern Michigan). 

Most years, that would be a 1-1 out-of-conference record. Making a bowl game would require the academies to go 5-5 in-conference. How likely is that?

Now the Big East can monkey around with non-geographic divisions in an attempt to put all of the less-competitive Big East schools in with the academies, but non-geographic divisions would probably destroy potentially sensible regional rivalries, making for a weaker TV product and a less lucrative TV deal. 

Plus the reality is that there are not that many bad programs in the football Big East, anyway.

With 10 teams in each division, the math starts to work for the academies. 

Army and Navy can schedule Notre Dame and two easy wins out of conference. They only need to go 4-5 in conference. 

If all three academies are in the same division (for a number or reasons it would likely have to be an eastern division, with Air Force as an outlier) the odds are the Commander-in-Chief Trophy winner would pick up two of their needed four Big East wins vs. the other academies.

They would only need to go 2-5 vs. the rest of the division if they lose a game out of conference (to say ND).  If they won all three OOC games, they would potentially only need to go 1-6 vs. the rest of the division.

The Academies rely on great technique and greater amounts of experience and depth to win games.  Achieving that kind of record should be very possible.
 
In the Big East, the academies would be able to finally optimize the earning power of their national fanbases in a shared conference.  The battle for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy would likely be followed by not just the academies' fanbases but also the Big East's own fanbases.

Additionally the Academies would earn money to plow into major training-facility upgrades and other needs, while still having a great shot at annual bowl eligibility.

 

Which brings this editorial to a conclusion..

I've made the case that basketball reinforcements are needed to keep ESPN at the negotiating table and committed to landing the Big East. I hope I have also made strong cases that 24 basketball members is an optimal number, and that 20 makes sense for football.

So what teams should be in? Tune in next time for the fourth article in the series where I name names. 

I encourage anyone who has read this series to stick around for the final installment: How to Apply the Big East's Assets to Cement a "Big Six" in the FBS World.

 

Breaking news: The Big 10 is rumored to have quietly offered slots to Rutgers and Maryland, and both schools may accept as soon as next week.  Like everyone else on Big 10 moves, I did not see this coming, but in retrospect, perhaps it should have been obvious. 

The Big 10 owns their network. With Notre Dame off the table, this is the only other realistic way the Big 10 can gain access to the NYC DMA.

If this happens, it could dramatically shuffle the deck for the Big East.

If true, it is very likely the ACC will add UConn as Maryland's replacement.

Losing UConn and Rutgers could change the Big East's thinking on schools like Villanova, UMass and others.

By the time the fourth article in this series comes out, this news will either be confirmed or debunked.  The reality facing the Big East will be reflected in that article.  

Either way, the Big East will need to expand.

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