Creating a Strategy To Build a Better Big East
Welcome to the third of what is now a five part series of Bleacher Reports on Big East expansion. In the first report I dealt with where the Big East is today after the near implosion of the Big 12 . In the second I discussed problems that must be addressed by an effective expansion plan . In this report I will flesh out what I think a Big East expansion plan should be to answer those problems.
The fourth report will deal with listing out potential candidates—as lists are quite popular on bleacher report—stating both the benefits and disadvantages admitting those schools to the Big East would create. I will cover both commonly assumed front running candidates and others.
In the final report in the series, I will name names, making my case for the teams I think should be targeted by the Big East for inclusion to secure a more stable future.
This report and the last will obviously be the most hotly contested of the five reports. I do ask that respondents read the first two reports to understand the problems that the solutions to this report are designed to address before firing off blistering responses to this report (if only so your criticisms will seem more informed to other readers, not angering them for wasting their time, and so if I have missed points or reached wrong conclusions, so that I have the most well thought out and educational corrections possible to consider).
On to the plan.
Academics, Research, and Prestige must play a role in school selection
In the last report, we discussed the possibility that only having eight football schools could become a factor leading to the Big East being pushed out of the automatic qualifier conference ranks. We talked about the need to add four or more football playing members and the reality that those probably need to be football-only memberships.
As I discussed in the previous posts, the BCS is a coalition of top universities and big bowls. While fan support and attendance is the main key for support from the BCS bowl leadership, academic reputation, commitment to research, strength of athletic programs, revenue generating potential, and institutional prestige are also important to very important to the most of the top schools in the BCS (The Big 10 schools, the academic top half of the Pac-10, the ACC, and UT).
Over the last decade, the Big East has struggled to justify adding any of the current leading candidates due to lack of markets, distance, comparatively weak academics, lack of excellence on the field, small fan bases, and, in general, overall resumes that offer insufficient arguments for BCS inclusion.
None of those candidates have changed a lot in these regards over the last decade.
If they were deemed not good enough for the past decade for Big East membership (and by extension BCS membership) by the Big East schools—schools fairly desperate to improve their BCS perception—why would the rest of the BCS schools suddenly go along with the Big East adding four schools out of that lot to the BCS ranks?
There is a good chance the other BCS conferences would bristle at the adds. A move like that could dramatically increase the odds of the Big East losing their automatic BCS slot.
The Big East is going to have to find some US News tier one academic schools currently at the non-AQ, FCS, or I-AAA level to supplement strategic "mid-major" additions in meeting their conference's strategic goals. And they will have to take steps to ensure those schools can deliver competence at the BCS level.
There has to be a pretty public acknowledgement (or at least in university circles) that the current group of candidates as a collective are not up to BCS standards academically and do not offer attributes that do not make them shoe-ins for Big East inclusion, and as such while some of those schools may still individually be good candidates for Big East inclusion, the conference will turn their focus to schools that better meet their conference goals. If the message is crafted properly, it could have a very good reception among the power conferences.
The conference doesn't just need 12 (or more) football playing members. It needs to add the right four (or more) football playing schools and convince them to join as football only members with little hope of eventual full membership—which could be a difficult sale in some cases.
To get that done, they might have to build a "feeder conference".
Building a feeder conference
This part of the proposal may seem totally unnecessary to some.
I personally believe building a feeder conference is almost a requirement for the Big East for a few reasons. First, it is move that no other FBS conference has done. It is bold in that regard, and would underscore that the Big East is a powerful conference that teams would join an FCS/IAAA hybrid conference simply to curry potential future Big East favor.
Secondly, it requires the basketball schools to make sacrifices for the betterment of the conference, something that will further pull the conference together.
Villanova is a football only member of the CAA. Leaving that affiliation would be something of a sacrifice.
Georgetown plays non-scholarship football at the FCS level in the Patriot League. For them to move to a scholarship conference would require some expansion of spending. Perhaps for some transitional period, Georgetown and the other five non-FBS schools could split the added scholarship costs as a good faith, gesture to the football schools.
Third, it gives the schools you are trying to add some security in knowing they will have a competitive and cost-effective home for their other sports.
Fourth, it allows the Big East to exercise the power they have as a BCS conference. If the Big East wants to schedule their feeder conference in basketball and some of their other sports, effectively pushing their OOC money to that conference will illustrate their power. Being able to push revenue in a specific direction as a conference will effectively underscore the fact that Big East is the power player in the Northeast.
Finally, it shows a long term commitment to the football schools. Current candidate schools like Temple and potential candidate UMASS are quite content having the non-football sports in the Atlantic 10. Bringing all of their sports in house into a feeder conference also gives the Big East a little more control over a potential football school breakaway.
Building a feeder conference, effectively a "Little East" with Northeastern FCS publics, would ensure the Big East a consistent stream of good upgrade candidates. If that conference eventually became an FBS conference, it would only further underscore the fact that the Big East is the premiere conference in the Northeast by creating an obvious point of comparison between the two conferences for fans. (The WAC for example is deeply hurt by the fact there is not a Sun Belt-level FBS conference working underneath them. Despite their BCS Bowl history, they are considered the Sun Belt level conference in the West by a growing number of fans.)
How do you build a feeder conference? It is easier to build on a foundation that is already there. Looking around the FCS and IAAA world, the America East Conference jumps out as a conference that might bite on that kind of arrangement.
The AEC has four members who play FCS football. You need seven for an FCS playoff berth, so the AEC doesn't offer football. Adding the FCS programs at Villanova and Georgetown would give the conference six football playing members. Luring back Central Connecticut State would potentially give the conference enough members to earn an automatic playoff berth. Adding Fordham as a football only member is another option for seven teams, and that is before you add any potential down the road Big East candidates.
The AEC has seen losses of schools like Hofstra over what I understand was a perceived lack investment of other member schools into athletics. At the FCS level cost containment where revenue is quite hard to generate, cost containment, building fan attendance, and keeping travel costs in check are probably more important.
(In a related note, Hofstra and Northeastern joined the higher profile Colonial Athletic Association—The CAA—only to see travel costs, poor turnouts, and the economic downturn lead to the cancellation of their football programs. Being able to provide some stability and cost containment at the FCS level could be attractive to a number of Northeastern schools.)
UCONN, UMASS, and the Big East offer
How do you square the need to add good academic schools and big northeastern markets with the fact none of those "candidates" are at a big East level in terms of fan support or facilities? I think you have to go back to a root idea with which all New England area Big East fans are familiar.
Years ago, The Big East invited all of its basketball playing members to add football and join the (at the time) high profile conference. Only the University of Connecticut accepted. They built a 40,000 seat, $91.2 million stadium (Rentschler Field) in 2002 (and a load of other new facilities) and quickly became a very credible BCS program.
The University of Massachusetts has long craved admission to the Big East. They saw the invitation to UConn and said, "Hey, invite us and we will then have the state government and private support to build a 40,000 seat stadium."
The Big East replied, "You aren't in our conference. Build your stadium and then we will consider you."
And so it used to go.
What is needed and what are the requirements of the existing framework?
The basketball schools, for their part, want to protect the voting balance and their very profitable 16-team league. The affiliation with a BCS conference gives the non-football schools effectively favored status at tourney selection time over conferences like the Atlantic 10, which used to send scores of teams to the NCAA tourney.
The football Big East needs more football teams in the highly populated Northeast if they hope to ever evolve from a subsistence level BCS conference working with no net, floating along nervously from potential raid to potential raid.
Target Region. The northeast is where most of the TVs are in their footprint and there is no major college football competition for those TVs. It is also where the reputation of the Big East is the least compromised. From the Maryland/ Virginia border northward is the obvious preferred region from which to add new schools. (Now that is not to say that adding a good candidate in Ohio or Chicago should be frowned upon.)
Large Enrollments. Each school should have a large enrollment. FBS football schools athletic programs are most stable when they have a large enrollment to potentially leverage into absorbing cost shortfalls and fuel attendance. I would think an enrollment of 17,000 should be the minimum seriously pursued, although a slightly lesser enrollment could be considered.
Stadiums. The schools added need to have teams that can draw at least 30,000 fans (and preferably no more then 45,000 fans so they won't be strong candidates to be raided by other BCS conferences). That means on campus (or within one mile of campus) stadiums seating 40,000-45,000 fans are required to take advantage of a large student body.
Academics. The teams need to be very good academic schools overall, so their inclusion doesn't hurt the perception of the conference as a BCS conference. State flagships generally carry a lot of academic weight. I would think most candidates would need to be at least ranked in the US News Tier One category.
Markets. The teams should preferably have either a good native Designated Market Area or offer a strong statewide potential. State flagships, for example, would be preferred. Coveted markets that aren't currently delivered should be strongly pursued.
The UConn solution should be applied to non-members
I think the right scenario is to move up strong academic schools who happen to be FCS powers (or in some cases FBS schools or IAAA schools). State flagships are ideal as they can quickly develop statewide followings and if their academics are good can become respected BCS members in short order.
The goal should be to replicate the UConn success story.
There will of course be howls about this as almost all of the lower level members have inadequate facilities when compared to BCS schools.
I would counter most of those can be added over time. The bottom line is an appropriate on-campus stadium. That is the crushing expense. If you can get the stadium built, the rest can be built over time.
If your university cannot seat 32,000 of your fans plus as many as 8000 opposing fans, then you don't bring any value to the football Big East in their efforts to stay in the BCS. That is the bottom line.
With that in mind the major requirements of Big East inclusion of a perceived lesser candidate should be for the candidate to build an appropriate sized stadium and earmark an appropriate promotional budget to drive ticket sales to fill it .
To me, that would mean that each of the selected members must build a stadium that will be a 40,000 seater within 10 years with no more than 8,000 of those seats being in the end zone or on the sideline beyond the goal line. In other words, 32,000 good seats for regular patrons—local fans, alumni, and students.
Budgeting a certain amount of money to call alumni and the public and actively drive ticket sales should also be a requirement.
It makes sense to have a firm build basic layouts for a scaled down, trackless, inexpensive 40,000 seat stadium with the small end zone capacity to give to potential members. (Fans do not normally chose to sit in the end zones, so end zone seats tend to go vacant. Too many vacant end zone seats, like you have at schools like Buffalo and North Texas create a perception of undesirability that keeps some fans away. End zone seats are generally overflow seating.)
(There are a lot of ways to cut stadium construction costs. Some sections—end zones for example—could have seating of more of a temporary nature early on, for example. North Texas is building a 30,000 seat LEED ("green") stadium for $78 million . That won't have all the bells and whistles, but will have enough. The British Columbia Lions just had an entire 27,683 seat temporary covered stadium ("Empire Field") built for them on the site of their old stadium for a mere $14.4 million ; Saputo Stadium in Montreal is a permanent stadium that has chairbacked seating for 13,034. Due to it's smaller capacity and the fact that it was built on an old existing soccer pitch, construction costs totaled a mere $14.1 million . If you go back a while, Norfolk State's Dick Price Stadium was built in 1997at an astoundingly cheap price, $12.2 million , for a 30,000 seat stadium that is still in use today. Now, they made some design concessions that wouldn't be appropriate for a Big East stadium, but the point is there are cost savings that can be had on permanent stadium construction.)
I think you could likely build a simple, no frills, expandable permanent stadium with 16,000 seats on each sideline and a temporary end zone bleachers that seat up to 8000 for about $80 million. It won't be a "Jerry Dome", but it would more than suffice for Big East competition.
I think it would be smart to let teams go with a smaller end zone burb or even no burb until they actually start play in the Big East, but the 32,000 seat on the sidelines from goal line to goal line and the fact there is no track should be non-negotiable. Teams have to build their fans bases. Putting their local fans in good seats near the action only increase the chance of a return ticket buyer.
How do you get schools to build stadiums?
I think The Big East needs to make it public that they are actively looking to expand. They need to talk to a lot of schools, not just ones they might ideally want. A controlled leak of the list of schools that might be considered to let fan bases and boosters creates pressure on school officials and state and local lawmakers.
The more schools rumoured to be under consideration, the more likely the schools the Big East really needs are to get their stadium act in order.
There are just under 20 schools that fit some or most of these target criteria and I would argue should be on the "big list of FCS and IAAA schools to talk to".
Here are 15 academically deserving schools but unlikely Big East candidates who could potentially become respected BCS members rather quickly if they could get an appropriate stadium built. Many of these are admittedly huge long shots, but the point is to talk to a lot of schools to drive desire in the fan bases at the schools you really want.
Georgetown —BE member in DC. Plays non-scholarship football in the FCS Patriot League.
George Washington —A-10. Large private in DC. 22,710 enrollment.
Howard —MEAC. DC based " Harvard of the HBCUs". Small at only 9,000 students, but would be a very noteworthy addition.
Delaware —CAA. State Flagship. Enrollment of 19,067. A top draw at FCS level.
Loyola Chicago —Horizon. 15,000 enrollment. Non-football school in Chicago, the nations's #3 DMA. Adding a Catholic member could appeal to the basketball BE schools. Could be a very good add giving the Big East a foothold in that DMA, but honestly even with an offer from the Big East out there, they are unlikely to add football.
Boston University —CAA. Long dead football program. Large Boston private. 31,766 enrolled.
Northeastern —old off-campus bad stadium finally killed their FCS program. Boston private. 22,942 enrolled.
UMass —State flagship. Enrollment of 25,873. Does well at FCS level.
New Hampshire —CAA. State Flagship. A little small at 14,964 enrolled, but a solid FCS program.
(SUNY) Buffalo —MAC. A State Flagship. Largest endowment in MAC. Largest of New York's state universities. 28,192 enrolled. Big time potential if the Bills end up leaving. "The Bullpen" suffers from grossly overbuilt end zone seating on both sides of the field and pushed away by the presence of a track. Some of that end zone seating is thankfully in the process of being torn down. The school would be wise to rip out the track, rip down the south end zone bleachers, and do a dig down... if conditions allow. More sideline seats and less end zone seating could help build a larger local fan base and quickly turn around the perception of Buffalo football.
(SUNY) Stony Brook —A State Flagship. 2nd largest of New York's state universities. 23,364 enrolled. Improving FCS program. Potentially could offer great down the road rivalry with Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rutgers.
Ohio —MAC. 20,437 enrolled. In Columbus DMA. Seen as a cut above most MAC schools academically. 24,000 seat Peden stadium would likely have to undergo massive renovations if not total replacement.
Miami Oxford —MAC. 20,126 enrolled. 2nd largest endowment in the MAC by a good margin. In Cincinnati DMA. A public Ivy. Seen as way better than most MAC schools academically. Yager Stadium would need to be expanded, possibly a second deck added on the East side might do it (no idea on the engineering), but the stadium design is actually quite decent, and Yager could work as a somewhat smaller stadium than would be required of most schools due to their exceptional academic credentials. 33-35,000 might be fine for this stadium and this university. Converting a lot of the space around the stadium into nearby parking and tailgating areas might help attendance a lot.
Hofstra —CAA. Just dropped football and really is a little below the cut in measurables, but a good location for the Big East near NYC.
Drexel —CAA. Philadelphia private school. Enrollment of 17,000.
And I'd add four "tier three" (there is no "tier two" in the US News rankings) exceptions to the rule: Maine, Rhode Island, George Mason, and Temple.
Maine and Rhode Island are state flagships, so the league should talk to them too. It is just respect. It is just good PR and they'd be good members of a Little East, anyway.
Rhode Island is the state flagship, does well in football at the FCS level, and has an enrollment of 19,000. They could be very successful at the BCS level if the support materialized to build an appropriate stadium.
Maine is a more marginal candidate with an enrollment of only 11,818.
George Mason is a large public (29,728 enrolled) near the Virginia/Maryland border not all too far from DC proper. They are far enough away from the Redskins to be an OK draw, but near enough to potentially have a lot of alumni in DC and quickly become TV relevant there.
Temple is a former associate member of the Big East and with an enrollment of 31,600 does offer a very large alumni base in the Philadelphia market. Temple is the kind of school you hope this strategy might deliver. They play at the Eagles's Lincoln Financial field (capacity 68,532). That is simply way too large of a venue for Temple's current active fan base and too far from campus at 6 Miles+ away. (Out of sight is out of mind in college football.) Temple really needs to see about converting their sports and recreational fields area into a 40,000 seat trackless stadium with a parking garage next door (Another potential solution would be petitioning to have the city supply the land upon which to build a stadium. Cecil B. Moore Playground would be a good site. Schwartz Playground is only two blocks away and could take up the slack in that regard.) Playing low FBS competition that no Owl fans consider rivals in pro stadiums has been brutal for what should be a fairly sound BCS program.
Do not overlook the usual suspects, just chose wisely if you do invite some of them.
While I think the Big East would likely hurt their BCS chances by adding four schools from the pool of usual suspects, they would also obviously critically hurt themselves by adding too many upgrade candidates.
Some of the candidates everyone talk about being good candidates for Big East inclusion are actually quite good candidates. Memphis, ECU, UCF, Troy, Middle Tennessee, Army, and Navy should all be weighed on their own merits, but also more importantly on how much they help the conference.
An effective Big East expansion plan should target key members from both groups that add clear value to the conference.
Talk to your upgrade candidates, secure the ones that build stadiums, pull the sensible "usual suspects"...and presto...the Big east will have a much stronger BCS hand.
Either later this week or next week, I will post a Bleacher Report list of Big East candidates with thumbnails of what they bring to the Big East, including much talked about members like UCF and ECU and some wild cards that in my opinion should be talked about more.
Post Script: I had left out smart scheduling strategy as a factor in this article, but it absolutely would be a key strategic element in landing some schools. It should have been covered in this article. I will cover this oversight in the fifth report in this series.
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