Big East: Saving the Conference in 8 Easy (ok Not so Easy) Steps
The Big East is like the US Economy, strong, if every participant believes it is strong.
However with Pittsburgh and Syracuse University jumping to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the current members of the Big East are lacking confidence.
Things looked tough for the Big East as a BCS automatic qualifier conference, but drama in the Big 12 has created a window of opportunity in which the Big East could potentially get a spot.
The Big East membership met on Oct. 2 to discuss expansion. Army, Navy, Air Force, Temple University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Central Florida were among the candidates discussed. The first five schools have academic profiles that would not be out of place in a BCS automatic qualifier conference. While UCF does not, it is one of the largest enrollment universities in the United States and is located in an NFL sized city that does not have an NFL team. It has all the attributes to be a major attendance draw team in the AQ ranks and offers a sizable local TV market.
Of the names reported, SMU is a new one added to the Big East expansion talk. On the positive side, SMU is quite prestigious and an excellent academic school. They are currently ranked No. 62 in the U.S. News ranking of doctorate degree granting national universities. Head football coach June Jones has built the program into team with the potential to be a top 25 team each year.
On the negative side attendance has always lagged at SMU since they endured the death penalty. Last year SMU averaged 23,515 fans per game. That would make them the worst attended program in the Big East by quite a bit.
On the flip side, Dallas/Fort Worth is an NFL city. Turnout for collegiate games tends to go up when teams are winning and when those teams play at higher levels of competition. It is very likely that SMU would draw much better as a member of a BCS AQ conference, but at the end of the day their stadium only seats 30,000.
SMU's sudden candidacy is interesting on another level. The Big East does not like the idea of adding duplicate teams in designated market areas, for example, TV markets. TCU and SMU are both in the Dallas/Fort Worth DMA. It is possible that they are looking at SMU as a potential replacement for Texas Christian, should the Big 12 poach the Horned Frogs.
This list of schools comes following leaks that the Big East is not interested in other frequently mentioned public schools in Conference USA; Houston, East Carolina and Memphis. Those schools are rated significantly lower in the U.S. News academic rankings than most members in BCS AQ conferences.
Which leads us to the question who should the Big East add?
The Big East apparently emerged from their meeting with a plan.
"The group concluded the meeting with a strategy to recruit top level BCS-caliber institutions that match the league's strong athletic and academic histories and traditions," said West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck.
Everyone has ideas on how the Big East can rebuild.
I wrote pretty extensively on Big East expansion and the problems facing the conference last year and have come up with this new prescription for the conference this year.
I hope Big East Fans enjoy it.
1. Figure out How the BCS Automatic Qualifier Schools Would Drop the Big East.
- The Big East football schools are much lower ranked academically than members of other BCS AQ conferences.
- Their attendance is much lower than the other BCS conferences, implying smaller fan bases. The Big East averaged 45,028 last year, The next worst showing in the BCS AQ ranks was the ACC with an average of 51,493. The big bowls who are in the business of selling tickets might rather have an at large member of the power conferences than the Big East champion.
- The pool of replacement candidates available to the Big East are either lower ranked than most BCS AQ members, have smaller attendance numbers, or are not consistently good football teams from year to year.
- Average ranking of highest rated team
- Average final ranking of all teams
- Number of teams in the top 25 (This measure is weighed in conferences with 11 or fewer members to make it more fair).
The Big East football schools are worried they may be cut out of the BCS automatic qualifier ranks in the coming age of mega conferences.
When the ACC raided the Big East in 2003 it was shock across the BCS world. There was some sympathy voiced for very strong athletic and academic schools like Syracuse and Pittsburgh that were left behind. Ultimately for whatever reason, the other BCS AQ conferences cut the Big East a break turning a blind eye to the obvious lack of star power in the conference and allowed them to stay an BCS AQ conference.
Perhaps regional thinking played a role. Every heavily populated region has a BCS AQ conference. The liberal, free thinking West has the Pac-12. The somewhat conservative central region has the Big 12. The academic elite of the midwest/rustbelt has the Big 10. The football crazed, deeply conservative deep south has the SEC. The eggheads of the Atlantic Coast have the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And the densely populated Northeast has the Big East.
The BCS is an alliance between the power schools and the big bowls. The big bowls half of the coalition probably wanted to maintain that argument of inclusiveness.
This time around there was no shock that another conference raided the Big East. Everyone knew the Big East would eventually be raided since the Big 10 first started talking expansion last year.
The question mounting is do you need a BCS AQ conference to serve the Northeast if the Big 10 and ACC consume most of the Big East's better teams?
While the Big East staying in the AQ conference ranks last time may have been in part due to sympathy from their BCS AQ peers (and the desire to have a conference represent the highest level of football in the northeast), it seems far less likely any special considerations will be given this time around.
Consider what is working against the Big East membership:
As such, most of today's Big East football schools are all trying to jump to other BCS AQ conferences.
To protect the Big East's BCS slot, TCU must be retained
Some fans may not realize what an important piece TCU is to the Big East.
The odds of the Big East keeping their BCS bid increase tremendously if they manage to keep TCU.
Why do I say that?
Well it is important to understand the rules the BCS has in place to try to keep the non-AQ conferences out. BCS eligibility for them today is technically based on evaluating those conferences on three on the field measurables:
The Big East is a named AQ conference through the 2013 season. Ominously, the BCS website says:
"If the BCS continues under the same or a similar format, conferences will be evaluated on their performances during the 2010 to 2013 regular seasons to determine which conferences without bowl contracts will have automatic qualification for the bowls that will conclude the 2014-2017 regular seasons."
It is noteworthy that they spell out that the rules can be tweaked at that point. It is also noteworthy that of the 6 automatic qualifier conferences, the Big East is the only one without a bowl contract. The language strongly hints that the rules may be re-written in the next interval so the Big East could be evaluated as a peer to say the Mountain West. On the outside looking in.
It is highly likely that if the BCS tries to cut the Big East out, it will be based on a similar "results based" criteria as they use on the non-AQ conferences currently.
That would allow the BCS elite to argue it is a merit based criteria as they take the Big East automatic bid and make it an at large bid likely to be filled most years by another member of the Big 10, Pac-12, ACC, or SEC.
Looking at the impact of TCU
We are only 1 year into the current evaluation period.
TCU finished 2nd in the nation last year. No other Big East team finished in the top 25.
Over the last 6 years TCU has finished in the top 25 five times and the top ten 4 times. Their coach has turned down overtures from a number of schools in that period.
The Big East had 3 top 25 teams in 2009 (one being Pitt), 2 in 2008, and 2 in 2007. As a conference the Big East has had two top 10 finishes in the past 4 years. Both of the coaches who lead their teams there are no longer coaching in the Big East.
Top ten finishers do not grow on trees. Aside from Boise State and TCU, only one other member of the non-AQ ranks to finish in the top 10 in the last four years was Utah --- and they are in the PAC-12 now.
While past results are no guarantee of future success, Given TCU's success over the past 6 years and competitiveness in bowl games, the frogs look like they would dramatically help the Big East in those measureables.
Additionally TCU helps the conference look respectable academically.
Many fans scoff at academic talk, but the plain, undeniable facts are almost all BCS AQ schools are ranked in the top 140 or so of the US News's list of National Universities.
The SEC and the Big 12 both have two members that fall below that threshold, but the Big East is really the glaring exception. Four of their seven football playing members fall below that threshold.
Pitt and Syracuse were their two of their three highest rated football playing members. The three remaining football schools that ranked above 140 --- Rutgers, UCONN, and TCU --- are the three most likely schools to be poached by other AQ conferences.
The Big East has academics issues looming
Now while there are plenty of non-BCS candidates who occasionally finish in the football top 25 who the Big East could consider bundling together in an effort to replace TCU, most of them do not have an AQ-level academic profile like TCU and would further chip away at what AQ-level academic esteem the conference still has.
While SMU has a very strong academic profile for a BCS candidate, their next top 10 finish will be their first in decades and as mentioned earlier they would drag down the Big East attendance average.
If the BCS AQ conferences want to take out the Big East, one of the other members conferences prying away TCU would be the best way to do it. The Big 12 is likely the only one that would consider it. There is simply no way the Big East could replace TCU.
So... How do you keep the Horned Frogs?
2. Forge an Alliance Between WVU, USF, and TCU to Save the Horned Frogs.
How could West Virginia and South Florida help secure TCU?
By building a stable core at the heart of the football conference. At least that is the best I can come up with.
Simply put if there is nothing stable in the Big East, and a Big 12 offer comes, TCU will jump to the Big 12.
If there seems to be something solid in the Big East, TCU is the kind of school that might honor their commitment for at least a few key years.
UT is sending a very clear message that they will commit to the Big 12 for five to six years and potentially no longer. Who knows who will be left in the Big 12 when and if UT goes in 2016? Will they take some key schools with them?
If UT leaves in 2016 when the ABC/ESPN deal for the Big 12 TV Tier 1 (broadcast) rights with the Big 12 is done, doesn't it seem likely Fox would exercise their right to void their deal with the Big 12 for their Tier 2 (cable) rights?
Could TCU actually get similar TV money in the Big East if the conference adds a few schools in large TV markets? Would that money be more secure than a share of the Big 12's TV package? Could TCU play off the Big 12's fear of the SEC gaining more recruiting traction in DFW by playing TCU to land games against Texas Tech, OU, UT and Oklahoma State? It seems likely.
There is the old saying, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" It seems like TCU in the Big East has every advantage they would have in the Big 12, without having to deal with drama queen DeLoss Dodds on a daily basis.
For TCU, it is very much a question which conference serves their long term interests better.
TCU is a football school. In the Big East they can potentially play their way into a national title game. In the Big 12 they would likely get tripped up by UT or OU most years.
Where is the alliance?
West Virginia has already taken their shot at leaving and failed. They appear nothing more than a down the road, backup option for the SEC or a target of the equally unstable Big 12. There are reports Florida might block Florida State, so the idea that the SEC might consider USF does not appear plausible. USF also appears to lack the academic profile to be on the ACC radar.
Neither has great options today outside of the Big East. There is nothing for USF to lose by taking further steps to secure this conference's future. West Virginia needs to weigh their long SEC odds vs. their current home conference imploding.
Both schools draw strong BCS AQ level attendance. While USF only averaged 40,846 last year, they did average 53,170 in 2007. West Virginia averaged 56,325 last year.
Good game attendance is obviously something that appeals to the bowls and is also difficult to replace. If USF and WV are in with TCU—who averaged 42,466 in 2010 and should draw better in an expanded stadium and BCS AQ conference—the bowl half of the BCS coalition could be an advocate.
If USF and WV committed to TCU, it could make TCU much more comfortable with staying.
If those two schools told TCU they would do the same kind of all in agreement to turn over their media rights to the conference as a good faith gesture until 2016, as was discussed by the Big 12 presidents last week, and if TCU does so too, it could be a tremendous momentum changer for the conference.
For TCU that kind of agreement could actually be optimal. TCU would feel security in the conference and would feel able to honor their agreement helping to save the conference long term. If UT does bail out on the Big 12 in 2016—opening a big hole in the Big 12's Texas media offering—TCU would be able to judge the merits of joining the Big 12 from a strong fallback position in the BCS AQ Big East.
USF needs to get West Virginia and TCU on a conference call and get this done.
3. Listen to Your Key Man in the Big East Coaching Ranks
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino had quite a lot to of sensible things to say in his blog on the Sept. 26.
While I suspect his understanding as to why the Big East was raided is based on the stilted perspective of someone else in basketball circles, his expansion suggestions seem to have a very reasonable chance of success. They sound like what someone with their ear to the ground in the Big East might suggest as a workable but unpalatable solution.
What he says about the conference bodes well for the Big East. Pitino, it seems, is huge Dave Gavitt fan and a Big East true believer.
"Let’s get to the bottom line of what needs to be done and get back to somewhat of Dave Gavitt’s vision: to have strong athletic programs in major media markets," Pitino said.
If you have TCU, West Virginia, and USF working together, and Pitino is pushing the University of Louisville to stay, you have the basis of saving the Big East as a BCS AQ conference.
The city of Louisville is a big city with no pro sports competition. The university has a very large sports budget and has been aggressively expanding their fan base for decades. They draw well in both revenue sports and are likely to continue to draw better in football in the future.
They drew 50,648 in football last year, 92 percent of the stadium capacity, and had the third highest basketball attendance in the country last year averaging 21,832 per game.
Louisville's decision could decide Cincinnati's fate
With West Virginia and Louisville in, Cincinnati would also be likely to stay.
The Big 12 could look at Cincinnati as the caulk for a Louisville/West Virginia expansion or even as a travel Partner for a Louisville expansion, but without Louisville, the Bearcats offer little to the Big 12. They aren't a good enough academic school to be aggressively pursued and they have one of the smallest stadiums in the BCS AQ world.
The Bearcats have NFL competition that suppresses their attendance and the small stadium, but there is talk that the university is serious about expanding Nippert Stadium, perhaps to a Big East-level 50,000 seat capacity.
4. Add Temple to Repair the Rift Between the Football and Basketball Sides.
- The Big East could add all sports Temple to get back to a eight football and 16 Olympic members.
- The Big East could cut a deal with the MAC so Villanova could take Temple's football slot in the MAC, balancing their divisions. Due to the better TV money possible, the MAC clearly would like to be the second conference in the Northeast as well as their native rustbelt region.
- Temple would be required to work with the Big East and the Eagles to waive the clause that keeps other college programs from hosting games at Lincoln Financial Field for Villanova. While the Eagles stadium would not be an appropriate sized home for the Wildcats' small fan base, this would allow the Wildcats to host a big draw game each year in the stadium to make their attendance more respectable.
- Nearby Big East schools which might draw well could play the Wildcats in Philadelphia. Distant Big East schools could pay Villanova generous payments for bodybag games to help fund their upgrade.
- It would not be wise to state it, in case it ruffles feathers in the rest of the BCS AQ world, but Villanova could be promised admission into the football Big East by say 2017.
I agree 100 percent with Pitino's first recommendation, although I disagree with the reasons why.
"Admit Temple immediately. They have a highly competitive football program with outstanding basketball tradition. They are a past BIG EAST member and an excellent school academically. And as all my friends say in Philadelphia, they are located in BIG EAST territory," he said.
The reason the loss of Pittsburgh and Syracuse was so brutal was that it reduced the shared ground between the football and basketball sides of the conference by eliminating two of the basketball powers in the conference. Adding Temple immediately would instantly ease concerns on both the football-centric and basketball-centric sides of the conference.
If there is an idea that having a good collection of Northeastern teams may make the BCS power brokers think carefully about keeping the Big East in the BCS AQ ranks,Temple is one of the more developed programs in the region.
Since the 2009 season, Temple has gone 20-10 in football. They play AQ schools tough. They would be a credible if uninspiring addition in football terms.
Don't be fooled by the attendance numbers, which were 20,515 per game last year. They play in the MAC, with which no one in Philadelphia respects or identifies.
Temple plays in the Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles and a fair distance from campus. The Owls are effectively competing with the Eagles for ticket dollars.
Like Cincinnati or Houston, two other large public schools playing FBS football in the shadow of an NFL team, the Owls will likely always be an average home draw at best. The fact that they don't have an on-campus stadium further caps attendance for most opponents.
It isn't that there isn't fan support for the program: It is that those fans are pro fans first. The fans watch the Owls on TV.
Temple's value right now is TV based. They added the Philadelphia Designated Market Area which is the No. 4/210 DMA in the country.
The Big East will not be able to secure new football programs that draw well and are have statewide support. Those schools are already in the other higher profile BCS AQ conferences.
The Big East will have to settle for programs with DMA-wide support. With that in mind, landing DMAs that have more people than many states, like Temple's native Philadelphia DMA, is a great play.
In order for the football Big East to compete at an AQ level they need to pile up a lot of those top DMAs. Adding Temple with it's large Philly-based alumni base is a great start.
While I wouldn't go so far as to call them an excellent academic school when evaluating them against other BCS AQ members, they certainly aren't an embarrassment. They are at the bottom of what is likely to be considered academically tolerable for the BCS elite. Pitino can be forgiven for exaggerating here as he is clearly shilling a bit for his friends. It doesn't change the fact that he is right to push for Temple.
Finally they are a very good and storied basketball program. Maybe they have fallen off a bit since John Chaney's tenure ended, but they still are a fairly regular tourney team and oh, by the way only happens to be the 6th winningest program in NCAA basketball history, trailing only undisputed national brands Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Syracuse.
If you want to add an all sports member to help the football big east, they should be good in football as well as offer strong academics. Being good in basketball too would be a cherry on top.
While the BCS's executive director has said that a conference maintaining a minimum number of schools has never been discussed as a requirement to participate in the BCS, the NCAA itself does have some football requirements that speak to having 8 all sports members in FBS conferences.
Getting back to an 8th all-sports member would also suggest much greater stability to the fans and the member football schools.
Temple is one of the only candidates that is acceptable in almost every area.
Temple would be a very smart add to sew both halves of the conference back together.
But there is a rub...
The Villanova problem
Over the last year, the basketball schools have appeared to want to use the TCU add as cover to ram Villanova, an FCS program, into the football Big East.
Villanova wrangled with the difficulties of upgrading for months. The newspapers suggested Villanova was on the verge of upgrading when it appeared the old guard of the Big East shot down that plan.
One would think that if the Big East's own BCS AQ schools were that out on the idea, it might send a message about how the rest of the BCS AQ schools might take an FCS to AQ jump.
Since then the Big East has been treading water in their expansion efforts.
Pitino suggests Villanova could be transitioned over time to be an FBS program. This seems to be Pitino speaking to the elephant in the room at Big East headquarters.
FCS football is a money pit. Villanova knows it and wants into the football Big East, but there program is not developed enough. They know in order for this to happen quickly, they need a lot of things to happen and a lot of Big East money to ease their transition.
The basketball Big East would also likely prefer to see this happen.
Big East has a desire not to duplicate coverage. This is generally a sensible position as they already have 15 members.
It is likely that is leading the basketball schools to block Temple, as they already have Philadelphia relevance via Villanova
Given the lack of slots and the desire to get Villanova in, the basketball schools may be joining USF in blocking UCF. That might be eliminating two schools that likely may have been the top target of the football schools.
I don't like the idea of bringing the hotly debated Villanova problem into a time sensitive moment for the Big East, but it might be unavoidable.
If Villanova is willing to be reasonable and get the basketball schools to not block Temple, a plan like Pitino's could be quite workable.
Having two Philadelphia schools could make Philadelphia the desperately needed anchor for the conference in the Northeast.
If Villanova and the basketball schools will not accept those terms, it is time to look at other options. Perhaps just offering Temple a football only membership might work for now.
While some of the basketball schools may prefer elevating Villanova to the FBS level in the next few years over adding Temple, there just isn't the time or the perception cushion with the loss of Pitt and Syracuse to fool around with Villanova theoreticals anymore.
The best compromises are the ones no one loves but everyone can live with to me, that is adding Temple as an all-sports member.
5. Get Karl Benson to Help the Big East Land Army, Navy, and Air Force
Pitino goes on to say, "Offer Air Force, Navy, and Army to join in football only."
Prior to Pittaburgh and Syracuse leaving, the Big East was allegedly in discussion to add Air Force and Navy as football only members. Army was apparently unconvinced so far.
It is possible that the Big East may have been pushing harder for Navy and Air Force as they already have Rutgers in the New York City DMA.
Pitino is right that the Big East needs Army too. There are only two FBS teams located within the New York City DMA, Rutgers and Army. The only protection the Big East would have for losing Rutgers to the Big 10 or the ACC --- and the impact that would have on the Big East TV deal, would be to get Army in the fold.
If the Big East offered all three of them a home in the BCS AQ ranks, the odds of landing them and keeping them would likely be pretty high.
One of my friends argued that if the three academies got into the BCS AQ ranks, the other BCS AQ conferences would be loathe to drop whatever conference they are in from the BCS AQ ranks. I am inclined to agree with his wisdom. If the Big East does get the academies, I believe the conference will have done a lot to protect its BCS future long term.
The academies are highly respected academic schools that the elites like playing. The academies simply do not amass AQ level football or top basketball talent in depth. That makes the other AQ conference members not want to add the academies.
Getting the academies into the BCS AQ ranks would be a very welcome addition among a lot of elite schools and if the Big East adds them, well that is a good reason to keep the Big East around in the BCS AQ ranks.
The Benson factor
Something else that could grease the wheels of progress would be for Big East commissioner John Marinatto to work with always unappreciated WAC commissioner Karl Benson.
Air Force would likely lose their home for Olympic sports in the Mountain West Conference if they pulled their football team for the Big East. Along these lines the Big East is discussing an all sports slot with Air Force.
Between brutal travel and talent shortfalls, Air Force would have a very difficult time competing in the Big East in their Olympic sports. That doesn't work for the Big East or Air Force.
In return for a good scheduling relationship a reasonable request as both conferences have Texas schools the WAC could offer Air Force a geographically sensible home where their Olympic teams would be better able to compete.
Air Force is significantly more prestigious than most of the other candidates the WAC is considering. Benson could likely help seal the deal for the Big East by easing Air Forces concerns about their Olympic sports.
The WAC could then add a school like Lamar and be at a geographically sensible two division, 8 football member, 12 all sports member conference.
The WAC will fall to seven football playing members next year. The new continuity of membership rules allow the WAC 2 years to add another school and return to the minimum of eight required to maintain ALL of their privileges as a conference. While failing to have eight members will not immediately turn Benson and the WAC into dust as many fans assume, it seems likely that the WAC membership would like to get above the eight football member threshold as soon as possible.
It would work for the WAC in that even if the Mountain West poached Utah State in a year or two, the WAC's NCAA rules mandated two year clock to find an eighth football member would be restarted.
There is value there for the WAC.
Where I deviate from the Pitino Plan
The Big East Pitino proposes would almost certainly be more attractive in football terms with Temple and three historic national brands in the academies. Temple offers Philadelphia media relevance. Two of the academies are in great native TV markets. All three have enormous national fan bases which frankly haven't been tapped well in the last 40 years and likely would be in the Big East.
Now that membership is a 16 basketball, 11 football member conference. The assumption is in Pitino's plan Villanova would be football team 12 and the conference would stop there.
As I said earlier, I think the Big East would have to wash the FCS-ness off Villanova for a few years in the MAC for it to not be a huge negative in the perception of the Big East.
So who would I recommend as football member No. 12?
6. East Carolina: a Smart Decision as a Football Only Addition from CUSA.
The Big East is rumored to be out on all the large publics in the CUSA except Central Florida.
The basketball schools can look at the academies and see how those institutions may actually be perfectly content with football-only membership long term. As such there is no lingering spectre of the Big East football schools breaking away from the basketball schools for an all sports affiliation with the academies.
The balance of football and basketball members allowed the Big East some stability, even if it may have made decision making contentious at times.
On the other hand, football only offers to strong football candidates in Conference USA might be more troubling to the basketball Big East.
I think this thinking needs to be overcome or the Big East may end up with 10 football members instead of a larger number than can generate more football TV income.
It is entirely possible that the league is looking at no more than 12 football playing schools. If that is the logic and the basketball schools want Villanova in and the Wildcats are not going to be ready to go for three to five years, you could see the basketball schools stall expansion at 10 for now.
10 football members means no revenue generating championship game and only three slots to add markets to enhance the football side's media offering rather than five or more. It means smaller TV money for the football schools.
Remember eight mediocre Big East football teams with lousy TV arguments have generated as much TV income as 16 exceptional Big East basketball teams blanketing a lot of terrific TV markets.
If the Big East can generate larger TV shares for their football schools, they have a much better chance of keeping those schools and stabilizing the conference.
And if they choose their candidates wisely and focus on football only additions, they won't need to worry about a football breakaway.
Football Only and Olympic Sport-Only Members are a great potential tool in rebuilding for the Big East.
The Big East needs only to be stingy with full memberships.
Full members are evaluated against your conference overall. Olympic sports only memberships are weighed a bit there as well. The Big East profits from their basketball association in small part because Notre Dame and Georgetown, two academic stars, and a collection of other strong academic programs give the conference image a little esteem bump.
The Big East membership apparently sees that adding most of the public school candidates in the CUSA as full members would hurt the conference as much as it helped as they do not have BCS AQ level academic profiles.
That may be part of the logic for upgrading Villanova, an excellent academic school over adding one of the CUSA public schools. The problem is that collection of expansion candidates is simply not good enough competitively.
I think the Big East can get away with adding some associate members who further enhance the sport in football or basketball and/or bring good markets.
And that is apparently what many are willing to take. Leaks came out a year or two ago that ECU told the Big East they would make a number of concessions to even be a football only member of the Big East.
Adding ECU as football member No. 12 would send just the right message.
Football Team No. 12: East Carolina
North Carolina produces a lot of football talent. From time to time a coach at a North Carolina university harnesses that talent to win 10 or 11 games, but the BCS AQ schools in the state are all focused on basketball first. Invariably their better coaches move on.
The Purple Pirates of East Carolina are a small market team, but they are clearly the only "football school" in the state at the FBS level. Not being an AQ school, they are at a major disadvantage recruiting vs. the ACC schools.
If ECU was in an AQ conference there is a very good chance they would be one of the strongest teams in that conference. They would recruit better in that talent rich state. With their football focus (and the basketball focus of the other schools in the state) it is entirely possible that in North Carolina, ECU could become to fans in football what UNC and Duke are in basketball.
There are 9.5 Million people in the state of North Carolina. ECU graduates are all over the state. They already have a solid argument for statewide media relevance, even though their native DMA is relatively small. That argument would only improve in a BCS AQ conference.
ECU averaged 49,665 per game in football attendance last year. Their stadium only seats 50,000. That is a 99 percent fill rate. ECU students are football fans.
ECU has approval from the state to expand Dowdy–Ficklen Stadium to 58,000.
ECU's academics are not BCS AQ level. Their basketball is not Big East level. The football schools are not going to be chomping at the bit to leave the basketball schools in order to join in a new conference with ECU.
ECU is a ringer. They are exclamation point needed on Big East football expansion and they would accept a football only membership tomorrow.
I think it is much smarter to add them today and spend time transitioning Villanova.
7. Get the TV Deal Done Today, Even If You Have to Take Slightly Less.
- Almost every report says USF is blocking UCF (a move that in itself would be a huge headache for the conference). USF President Judy Genshaft appears to be spinning this like crazy saying, "What is happening is the league, or the conference, now is looking at schools and they have looked very much at schools that are not in any of the states that are represented by the Big East schools right now. The ones that they're looking at right now, they do not sit in any state that the Big East schools currently are in." Meaning it is not us, it is just the other members of the Big East have decided that in spite of the football side's media concerns they don't want the Orlando NFL-sized DMA; The Big East members only want a sliver of Florida. Conferences generally go along with any school who feels a need to block another school if they can't convince them to change their position.
- Notre Dame and a few other basketball schools felt the league could do better, so they voted it down.
The Big East is at a strategic disadvantage without a TV deal. As Baylor proved, a conference with a long term TV deal with ESPN has some great advantages. Without a TV deal the Big East is quite simply, easy pickings, this is why I favor most of Pitino's relatively quick to implement expansion plan.
In May, the Big East rejected a seven year extension with ESPN that would have paid the conference $130 million a year.
Assuming any school that played football would get two shares and every school would get a share for basketball, you would have 35 shares. Every basketball school might get one share worth $3.7 million a year and every football school might get three worth $11.1 million. (note: The math is likely a hair bit off. The article sounds like ESPN's offer figured for UCF to be included, aka 38 total shares.)
There were some problems with accepting ESPN offer.
The networks pay the conferences for what they bring to the table as a whole. In an ideal world, I think the Big East might be able to squeeze out a few more dollars with a different team mix, but the conference has time constraints. They really cannot afford to wait all that long without a contract in this predatory environment.
If Missouri jumps from the Big 12, the Big 12 could come after the West Virginia rather aggressively and pull apart the ties that bind the conference together. The Big East needs to get things done quickly. One Big East Coach already looked at Missouri looking around and texted ESPN.com "the big east is finished."
The Big East needs to work quickly. The great thing is that with the possible exception of Army, all of the expansion candidates listed so far have just as much to lose as the Big East basketball members if the Big 12 pulls West Virginia and others.
I think it probably makes sense to give a bit to get a deal in place immediately with some good terms for renegotiating.
For example the Fox deal with the Big 12 allows Fox to void the deal if they choose if there is a change in the alignment. This was designed to protect Fox if one of the three teams providing the majority of the media value in that deal—Texas A&M, UT, or OU—left. It was a sensible precaution in a deal between a network and an unstable conference.
That kind of clause would kill the Big East.
As the Big East doesn't have three dominant schools like that, it would make sense to simply angle for a deal that costs the conference fixed amounts for each potential loss as well as sets terms for each addition based on likely markets and the household delivered.
The Big East knows which schools they might consider. The networks know how much value those programs might add. It seems fairly workable to set guidance into the contract for the addition of up to a half dozen or so potential schools or markets.
I think there is more money and stability out there with more smart expansion in the short term.
So what other idea expansion ideas make sense?
8. Use Partial Memberships Like a Scalpel to Make a Bigger Big East
Full membership slots require member schools to be good in everything not to hurt the perception of a conference. There simply are not enough well rounded programs to go that route.
Using football only bids in a play for Florida might be the conference's smartest possible enhancement move.
Going to 14 in football with UCF and Florida International as football only members would bring their large alumni-bases in the Orlando and Miami DMAs into the Big East footprint along with putting the conference in a great recruiting position. Sadly it seems USF would likely prevent that from occurring.
What's the deal with USF?
USF is the 7th largest university in the US with an enrollment of 47,576. They are located in the Tampa DMA, an NFL sized DMA. The problem is that they have NFL competition. So while they may have had attendance swell to over 53,000 in 2007, all it took is a resurgence of the Bucaneers and USF was back down to 40,000 in attendance last year. That limiting factor is always going to be there.
And there is the fact UCF in many ways has a better hand. Both are in similar NFL sized DMAs, but UCF doesn't have NFL competition that is continuously sapping their attendance. UCF is the second largest university in the US with an enrollment of 56,064. They drew 39,614 to their five-year-old, 45,301 seat Bright House stadium last year, which is 87 percent of capacity. The stadium is designed to be expandable to 65,000 and UCF has plans to expand it to 56,000 in the next 10 years.
It is reasonable to imagine that if both schools were full members in the Big East that UCF might quickly surpass USF. This could be an issue if at some point the ACC might feel forced to add another school from Florida. Today, if that extremely unlikely situation arose, the slot would almost assuredly be USF's.
FIU is a school clearly a decade behind the first two in their development, but they have very similar bones to USF. They have NFL competition. Additionally football attendance in Miami seems a bit soft overall at the collegiate and pro levels. FIU has an enrollment of 44,010, which puts them just behind the 10th largest enrollment US university, Penn State at 44,817. Their stadium seats 23,500 today, but is designed to be expandable to 45,000.
None of these three schools have BCS AQ level academic profiles and none of them are all that great at basketball, so the idea of the football schools leaving for an all-sports association with them is unlikely.
In an optimal situation, UCF and FIU could be given football only memberships. USF could push more money into basketball and become one of the better basketball programs in the Big East. That would help USF remain ahead of UCF in the extremely unlikely chance the ACC comes calling.
UCF and USF have both had flirtations with dominance and it is becoming abundantly clear that FIU is loaded with more talent in depth than other Sun Belt schools can match up against.
As the ACC would likely never be interested in either UCF or USF over their academic shortfalls, the Big East would have three of the largest alumni bases in three NFL sized DMA in a football crazy state. The football schools of the Big East would have an unprecedented advantage in mining talent out of Florida.
While it would be great to imagine USF sacrificing their football headstart for the good of the conference, I don't see it happening today. They seem too set in their ways.
So football is set at 12.
...On to plan B.
Plan B: (for basketball)
The Big East needs reinforcement in the Northeast, but no schools in the Northeast have sufficiently developed FBS football programs.
The smart play is to target the Northeast schools the Big East wants playing Big East football 10 years from now.
The logic is simple. The conference has to know it is simply a matter of time before they lose UCONN and Rutgers. They need to be proactive and start grooming football playing public university replacements who would want to stay around and help the conference keep its Northeastern identity.
The Big East added exclusively Catholic non-football playing Universities last time to balance the football schools. Now the basketball schools need to think bigger.
There is every reason to believe they can extract an equal basketball TV share for a basketball member who brings a significant number of new TVs to the table for the Big East. That money can be used by the new members to help finance upgrading their football stadiums to Big East standards.
Offer Olympic sports membership to targeted publics with an agreement that those schools need to funnel money into football stadium improvements. Those new schools need to get into the MAC as soon as possible so the Big East can pull their teams from an FBS conference instead of an FCS one.
Which schools to offer
I think the questions of which schools to choose is a matter of preference to some degree, but I would step back and take a long view of the conference. The obvious heart of the conference is the northeast and that is where reinforcement will be needed.
Adding schools in large DMAs or with statewide followings in states say north of North Carolina and East of Cincinnati makes sense to me. The basketball Big East does a great job of blanketing many of the key DMAs in their footprint to allow one member's support to work off another's.
UMASS, the state flagship of Massachusetts is the obvious first choice. Geographically they are very well placed should UConn join Syracuse in leaving the conference. Historically they have played good basketball, they have a strong following across all of the state's DMAs including the large Boston DMA, and they are already in the MAC. Academically they are ranked 94th in the US News rankings. Currently, the Big East does not have a presence in Massachusetts, a state of 6.5 million people.
Delaware is another prestigious FCS school who it might be worth calling to guage interest, even if their basketball fan support is pedestrian. If they are willing to transition their football program through the MAC, it might be worth adding the Blue Hens as an Olympic sports member in order to secure another prestigious state flagship. Delaware is ranked 75th in the US News ratings and although they are another school located in the Philadelphia DMA, they have a good number of fans and alumni in living in the Philadelphia area, Southern New Jersey, eastern Maryland, and Delaware.
Adding a school in inland New York could be sensible, but would probably work against the conference's long term interests today. Having Buffalo is probably a big part of what lead the MAC to offer a football only membership to UMass and what has them allegedly talking to Stonybrook.
Adding a Virginia school might make a world of sense. Virginia has a population of 8 million. Between George Mason, James Madison, Virginia Commonwealth, William & Mary, and Old Dominion there are a number of reasonable candidates. Old Dominion has quite a successful new FCS program and is in a good DMA, but have mediocre academics for a BCS AQ candidate.
George Mason is a Virginia University in the Washington DC DMA (where the Big East already has Georgetown), but they have the required academic profile and are big enough that playing football could be an option if they desired. They are located 30 miles away from the Fed-Ex Field where the Redskins play --- that may be far enough away that they could build a successful BCS program in time if they were inclined to do so.
Adding a second Ohio school could be sensible as well. The state of Ohio has a population of 11.5 million. The state is dominated by three very large DMAs—Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus. The Big East already has a presence in the Cincinnati DMA. Miami (Oxford) and Ohio University both fit the bill academically. While Miami (Oxford) is in the Cincinnati DMA and would be a duplication, Ohio U is in the Columbus DMA - a totally new DMA to the Big East.
Although Peden Stadium is too small for Big East play, years of Big East basketball money coming in could help fund smart football stadium expansions getting it up to where Cincinnati's stadium is today. The proximity of Ohio U. to West Virginia could also help ease Mountaineer boosters' feelings of abandonment and isolation following the loss of Pitt.
This would yield two mostly independent divisions of 10 teams each --- perfect for basketball scheduling. The conference halves would meet in Philadelphia turning the negative of duplication into a natural discussion point for fans in an important Northeastern city.
George Mason or Old Dominion (or VCU, William & Mary, or James Madison)
- Where the Big East Stands after the Near implosion of the Big 12
- Problems That Must Be Addressed For a Successful Big East Expansion
- Creating a Strategy To Build a Better Big East
- Schools on the Big East's Expansion radar ...and some that should be
- Final Conclusions On Optimal Big East Expansion: Part 5/5
That's it for my Big East expansion thoughts for now. I hope you enjoyed them.
If you want to read last year's far more in-depth series on Big East expansion, here are the links.
And here is the precursor to this article from this year that traces out many of the problems facing the Big East since this latest ACC raid and prior to UT's DeLoss Dodds apparently running off another Big 12 member...