A relentless pursuit of excellence in basketball...isn't that what the Big East needs?
The Big East's Seven Catholic schools have announced an intention to leave the Big East on June 30th, 2015...rather than following up with their initial plan to blow the conference up under the feet of the incoming football playing members.
The Gunpowder Plot of 2012
It was thought that the Big East bylaws clearly allowed the basketball schools to pull the plug on the conference via a seven to three voting edge on the Big East Board of Directors. (The incoming football schools will not be considered "Directors"—voting members—until July 1, 2013.)
This was disputed by reports that Temple's vote was being overlooked. Temple will be a full member next year, but this year is a football-only member. In theory, counting the Owl's vote, the vote would be 7-4, giving the Catholic schools less than the two-thirds majority required.
That idea that Temple was an 11th vote on a dissolution election does not seem to be supported in the bylaws and reports quickly surfaced rejecting the idea.
On the 14th ESPN wrote that a source advised "that the league may not be dissolved without at least two FBS and two non-FBS members each voting to do so." (Others have described the source as "a Big East source.")
The ESPN article went on to suggest the Catholic schools might simply take advantage of the legacy "schism clause" (implemented when Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College went to the ACC) to leave as a group with no exit fees due, instead of trying to terminate the conference.
The article noted that in order leave without penalty, the Catholic schools would have to give at least 27 months notice.
While (as far as one can see) this "two plus two" interpretation does not appear to be supported by the bylaws, it does look like the Catholic schools have followed through with the plan from the ESPN article and are simply departing the conference with the mandated advanced notice.
It seems likely that either the Catholic schools were convinced that dissolution would require an action by the Athletic Director's Executive Committee (requiring two football directors to vote), or the football schools empowered Aresco to cut a deal with the Catholic Universities to end the threat...Perhaps surrendering the Big East name in 2015 (or other assets)?
Sadly, at this point the national media have not asked those questions, so we don't know which is the case.
Regardless, it does appear that the Gun Powder Plot of 2012 is over.
Aftermath of a failed coup
Effectively, it appears that barring further raids by contract conferences, the "new Big East" will be together for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons after all.
By hanging around for 30 months, the basketball schools not only get time to build their conference at a leisurely pace, they get to pull shares of the the NCAA "money units" left behind by Louisville, Pitt, and Syracuse (money units are paid out over a multi-year period) for an extra two years.
The Catholic schools naming a departure date does suggest the Catholic schools have turned in their withdrawal notices (per bylaw 11.02). As soon as a Big East school turns in their withdrawal notice they are no longer eligible to vote as a "Director" (per bylaw 5.01 b) on issues like membership.
This suggests that now Cincinnati, UConn, and USF may have total voting control...until the new football members join on July 1, 2013.
Why this may be important —the TV implications first
A couple days ago, CBS reported that Commissioner Mike Aresco had to cut off a trip to negotiate with potential broadcast partners in order to deal with the impending departure of the basketball schools.
"...Aresco's plans to visit New York for television negotiations were derailed this week by the imminent basketball defections, and resuming talks don't sound promising."
“I think the television negotiations are over,” one industry source said. “What are you going to negotiate?” ..."
Now if this exit date represents a firm agreement (ie. either both parties have agreed to it or the football schools intend to hold the Catholic schools to it) , it appears that Aresco and the Big East's negotiation team can now go back to those meetings offering a two year run featuring the same schools that had pulled in 6 interested bidders in the first place.
The TV payout ballpark numbers mentioned by CBS's Dennis Dodds on December 6 (after Louisville left and Tulane and ECU came in) were $60-80 million range per year.
Now there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, that was early in the negotiation process. With 6 bidders, those numbers were likely to go up a bit.
Secondly TV payouts are usually structured to go up a bit each year. So a seven year deal worth $70 million per year might pay the Big East $70 million in year four and $80 million in year seven, but only $60 million in year one.
The Big East has a commissioner in Mike Aresco and hired negotiating firm in Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures who understand broadcasters and have experience closing media deals for sports products.
If the Catholic schools are in for two more years, Chris Bevilacqua and company can continue selling the same content they have been selling the last few weeks.
Oddly enough, the six potential broadcast partners could be a lot more confident than they were three weeks ago about signing a deal with the Big East that will hold its value for the length of the deal.
I have been quite critical of going into TV negotiations with only this assortment of schools, but if they can land a deal (or deals) that pays $70 million or $80 million for 2014 and 2015, following this strategy might be a decent move. (If you think about it, this could be similar to what a 10 year deal at $80-90 million might pay in year one and two. It could be enough for schools like SDSU and Boise State to hang around for the next deal).
I certainly understand if Aresco is more comfortable looking for salvation from his ability to negotiate with a broadcaster, rather than any other strategies like expansion.
A two year deal would give the football Big East some broadcast numbers—something concrete—to sell in negotiating their next deal.
It would also quickly put money in SDSU and Boise State's hands that exceed the Mountain West Conference's schools' individual earnings. It would give the maximum time to let envy work on the MWC's newly found solidarity.
The opposing case is that if you can pay the privates to leave now, the Big East can can use their slots to land more compliant replacement schools and then secure a long term deal. (The downside is that totally restarts negotiations from scratch, which may be why this does not seem to be the direction the conference is taking.)
With the MWC stuck in a longer deal with poor payouts, one can argue that signing a fairly big money long term deal as soon as possible is the best chisel to pry schools from that conference.
A short term deal could allow the MWC to sell their schools on the idea that any gains by the Big East are strictly short term gains.
But, it is at least leveraging one of the conference's best assets (its negotiating crew) is a strategy that has merits that can be argued.
Regardless, the Bearcats and Huskies' leaderships should vote for Immediate basketball expansion
Cincinnati's and Uconn's leaderships appear bitter, indignant, and feeling geographically isolated today. Both schools seem to feel they are better athletically and academically than the new Big East. And they care about basketball more than most of their new incoming members.
Both would be wise to take advantage of their current leverage to build a more comfortable temporary home... in case that invite does not come for a few years.
Today, the northern duo appears to suddenly have a two to one voting advantage over USF.
Think about the opportunity that represents.
In July, UConn and Cincinnati will be a minority voice in the conference. Conferences usually are inclined to vote their geography to a large degree in expansion decisions, especially if remote schools are making noise about leaving.
It is very unlikely a northern expansion takes place after July 1st, 2013.
It is far more likely Cincinnati and UConn will be playing Boise State and East Carolina in basketball if the northern schools do not take action soon.
So...Do Cincinnati and UConn want to be the only northern schools in the conference?
Do they want to continue to play in an elite basketball conference?
OK, so which schools make sense to add?
At the end of my last article I rattled off a few schools that could have done a lot to replace the Catholic schools in the instance that they left immediately.
As the Catholic schools do not appear to be going anywhere until 2015, a more measured response makes sense today.
Even though the case against Tulane basketball was extremely overstated, the Catholic schools did make a valid point.
At some point a conference has so many bad basketball programs that it drags down its conference strength of schedule.
Get enough schools doing that, and a conference has a situation like Conference USA v. 2.0 where annual bubble caliber teams UTEP, Tulsa, UAB and others usually miss the NCAA tourney, rather than make it.
If the Big East isn't one of what will be the 6-8 basketball power conferences, their tourney money units will decrease and the Big East's athletic offerings will become easy for a network to pass over.
For the record, I maintain the case against Tulane basketball was taken to a statistically dishonest point in order to deflect any blame for the Catholic schools' departures.
It absolutely ignored that RPI-wise, if Tulane played a Big East schedule they would effectively be another DePaul—due to the Big East SOS.
Just joining the conference probably adds four or more points onto Tulane's RPI. That would make the addition of Tulane basketball appear far more tolerable.
Now Tulane athletics needs a lot of work. There is no denying that, but Tulane is unfairly taking the hit for a number of middling basketball programs coming in. The Green Wave basketball team is not horrifically bad...Certainly not bad enough to kill a conference on their own.
While I may react with utter disbelief to the panicked, misplaced, and short-sighted protests of embarrassed Tulane Greenbackers President Mike Johnston (he suggested the move to the Big East was senseless), Green Wave fans do have every right to be miffed about the Catholic schools using Tulane as a scapegoat to cover the basketball schools' malfeasance.
One can only hope the Greenbackers push a little more money into Tulane basketball. Improved basketball play on the on as grand of a stage as the Big East can do a lot to quickly erase this unfair, national public relations wedgie given to Tulane basketball.
Adding northern travel partners
It would be a smart strategic move for basketball powers Cincinnati and UConn to add a few top basketball-only schools (and nearby ones) to offset the RPI hit caused by the addition of schools like Tulane (as well as the coming departure of the Catholic schools).
If the added schools were strong enough programs, this "abuse of power" by Cincinnati and UConn would probably be tolerable to the incoming football schools as it could create sensible northern travel partners and have a positive affect on the TV negotiations.
Butler would be a good travel partner for Cincinnati. Brad Stevens is an exceptional coach and would help the Big East coaching brain-drain. Looking at the last five years, they are the second strongest basketball program potentially available to the Big East and would enter the conference as the third best program outside of the Catholic ranks.
They are academically strong.
Butler is also not a Catholic school, so they would probably take a Big East offer today rather than waiting a couple years for an invite from the Catholic seven which might not come...simply because Butler is not a Catholic school.
Should Cincinnati leave, the football schools can eliminate a football trip to the Midwest by adding an Olympic-only member as Butler's travel partner.
(Dayton might be a very smart pick. The Catholic schools might very well decide to pass on the Flyers in favor of Xavier over proximity concerns. Dayton was 27th in attendance in the nation last year, averaging 12,567 per game and they usually merit a tourney invite. Oakland University (near Detroit), Cleveland State, and Valparaiso offer strong basketball and better native Designated Market Areas. The University of Illinois at Chicago is a weaker program, but is another option. The latter schools draw about 3000-4000 fans per game in their current conferences and the public are not especially academically prestigious.)
UMass would be a great travel partner for UConn. They would take an Olympic sports-only membership to get their foot in the Big East door. They are a state flagship university with strong academics.
UMass is a large enrollment public who with UConn would offer the Big East solid media coverage in Boston and the Massachusetts DMAs. They have had two very good basketball seasons in the last five years. UMass only averaged 3300 per game last year, but their numbers could quickly ramp up in two years in the large Big East.
From UConn's perspective, while they may not want to invite nearby UMass—even with a lesser Olympic Sports-only membership—inviting the Minutemen could be the smart play for the Huskies.
UMass coming in could make UConn's media support appear bigger (helping the Huskies' case for ACC admission).
If UConn leaves, Stony Brook, Hofstra, or Fordham each have cases for inclusion as UMass's travel partner. (Today Stony Brook has the best basketball program.) All three offer a native presence in the extremely valuable NYC DMA. (The New York City DMA is the size of the No. 4 Philadelphia, No. 5 Dallas/Fort Worth and No. 10 Houston DMAs combined.)
With the Catholic privates around for three more seasons, the football schools can spend some time shopping for their NYC member. The conference can afford to wait and see if any of these three emerge as solid basketball programs.
If not, Rhode Island and Siena are better supported programs and solid on the court, but have weaker media appeal.
Getting Temple a Virginia travel partner would create an unbalanced number of basketball schools, but would dramatically reduce the chances of the incoming football schools admitting basketball dead weight East Carolina at some point in the next two years. It also potentially could help shorten UConn and Cincinnati's travel burden.
Large Virginia public universities Virginia Commonwealth or George Mason would both represent a good travel partner for Temple. VCU averaged 6,645 per game last year and is the better Big East candidate today due to the coaching of Shaka Smart. If Smart should leave after the season, George Mason will be the better candidate at that point. George Mason averaged 5,896 per game and is in the Washington DC DMA.
Other basketball help
Offering San Diego State a pathway to transition from a football-only member to an all-sports member also makes great basketball sense. SDSU is the third strongest basketball program available to the Big East. They averaged 11,668 per game last season.
Adding Steve Fisher's program would do a lot to legitimize the conference in the west. Playing in the Big East could take Fisher's recruiting in Southern California up to Louisville or Syracuse levels.
UTEP could be secured with an all-sports invite as SDSU's distant, but tolerable travel partner. They averaged 8,959 per game last year and even in a much lesser conference, are usually a bubble caliber team.
They would take the invite for the money and a chance to play Houston and SMU in conference again. UTEP offers strong basketball and strong fan viewership in south Texas as well as the large Texas DMAs. That should help the Big East in negotiations. UTEP also helps position the conference to pick off MWC schools in the future.
As finances dictate that only an all-sports offer would land UTEP, Larry Coker's UTSA football program should get a football-only offer to balance the divisions and help with Texas relevance.
The Roadrunner football program has a large number of alumni in both Austin and San Antonio, the two large neighboring DMAs in south central Texas. (The two DMAs combined would rank No. 17 in the nation. That will help with the TV numbers.) The Roadrunners also draw pretty well in football.
It makes a lot of sense for UConn and Cincy to get this done immediately before any party can take action to try to stop it.
How great would it be for the future of the Huskies and Bearcat's athletic programs in this football conference if SDSU, Memphis, VCU, UConn, Temple, Cincy, Butler, and UMass happened to dominate the Catholic schools in the 2014 and 2015 conference tournaments? When you consider the teams on each side (and the team count), it is not a far-fetched scenario at all.
That could have long-term, positive NYC implications for the football side of the Big East.
The total cost of this expansion is one football-only slot, one all-sports slot, and four Olympic-only slots. Most of the targeted schools are in large population states and have good cases for media relevance.
Based on the "low" projected numbers, that would only cost about $11 million out of the conference's (low number) $60 million total.
There is every reason to think these schools combined would create $11 million of new TV revenue for the Big East—and it only burns two football slots.
It should seem pretty acceptable (after the fact) to the rest of the football Big East.
This would lay out fairly well for the next two years, although the Big East wouldn't have an even number in basketball, screwing up setting up travel partners.
SW Division: SDSU, Boise State, UTEP, UTSA, SMU, Houston, Tulane
NE Division: Memphis, Cincinnati, USF, UCF, ECU, Temple, UConn
SW Division: SDSU, UTEP, SMU, Houston, Tulane, Memphis, UCF
Central Division: Butler, Cincinnati, USF, VCU, Temple, UConn, UMass
Big East Division: Marquette, DePaul, Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall, St. Johns, Providence
(This was setup with the idea that Aresco may have promised to have the privates playing each other in a division.)
The Conference would have solid to good media penetration in Texas, Southern Cal, Florida, the Midwest and the Northeast to sell in this two year contract period. While this membership wouldn't generate the revenue having the Big East's pipe dream targets—BYU and all three academies—would deliver, it might deliver enough income to intrigue Air Force and Army in 2015.
The conference would be able to leverage strong basketball showings on the biggest collegiate tournament stage of them all to show its schools still play elite level basketball.
In the next two years, the Big East could try to coax their preferred targets (BYU, Air Force, and Army) in for 2015, when Navy is scheduled to join. That, any additional expansion, and the departure of the Catholic schools would probably allow an easing of the gross violations of geography (Tulane and UCF in the basketball SW division) in this two year setup.
Opportunity is knocking for UConn and Cincinnati
And it won't knock forever...
The leaders at Cincinnati and Connecticut should ask each other, what happens if one of them gets what amounts to a final spot in the ACC? (Perhaps as an Olympic member for now...?)
What happens to the other school?
It makes a lot of sense to guarantee the Big East will always be at least tolerable for them by adding schools now when they have the power to pick and choose.