Boise State, Air Force, Navy, Army, Houston, SMU, and UCF. All of these schools have been talked about as serious contenders to join the Big East Conference— a conference that's looking to expand.
So, it's perhaps surprising that, out of all of the schools that have expressed interest in joining the Big East, none of the aforementioned "favorites" currently has the highest average attendance this season. That honor goes to ECU, which has averaged 49,862 fans per home game this season, or 99.7 percent capacity.
Those numbers make it all the more baffling as to why the Pirates aren't being more heavily favored by the Big East Conference as potential new members.
The Big East Conference is in danger of crumbling, and perhaps even losing its auto-bid. So it only stands to reason that it try to get the strongest possible programs as expansion members.
Defining "the strongest" is a bit tricky. Here is the list of contributing factors: program prestige, fan support, market share and access to new recruiting areas for the conference. With these factors in mind, the Big East's lack of interest in ECU becomes even more confusing.
Which Conference USA team is the best choice for Big East expansion?
Nobody is arguing that ECU is the most prestigious program to have shown interest in the Big East. That is obviously Boise State. However, of all the other candidates, ECU is arguably the second most prestigious.
The Pirates have won two conference titles in the last three seasons. Of all the expansion candidates, only Boise State can claim the same. The Pirates also have two marquis wins in the past few seasons. They defeated both West Virginia and Virginia Tech in 2008. By comparison, UCF's biggest win during that time was against a 6-loss Georgia team.
This one is pretty simple. Fan support equals attendance. As mentioned previously, ECU has the highest attendance of the Big East expansion candidates.
Furthermore, the fan support stays high regardless of the team's record. When a 0-2 Pirates team played Conference USA bottom-dweller UAB earlier this season, the game drew over 50,000 fans.
This is where most critics commonly knock the Pirates. While it is true that Greenville, North Carolina is not exactly a huge media market, size is hardly the only indicator of a good media draw.
Blacksburg, Virginia is a much smaller market than Greenville, yet Virginia Tech has no problem drawing viewers—thanks to strong fan support. Fan support equals viewers, and as already established, ECU has plenty of fan support.
Conversely, simply being located in a large media market does not necessarily guarantee a large number of viewers. If that were the case, conferences would frantically be trying to recruit Howard University in order to gain the Washington D.C. media market.
Without fan support, media market means very little. In a Conference USA game against Marshall earlier this season, UCF managed to have only 24,750 fans in attendance.
It's incredibly difficult to believe that very many of the two million-plus people in the Orlando market were watching the game if fewer than 25,000 were interested enough to go.
The state of North Carolina has plenty of recruits to go around. It already supports four teams from Automatic Qualifying conferences. The state is also geographically close to many of the member institutions currently in the Big East (unlike say, Idaho).
Despite the potential recruiting advantages, the conference currently has no member presence in the state. Adding ECU would change that.
Honestly, there is no logical explanation for the lack of interest ECU has been receiving from the Big East. That's a real shame for a conference desperately in need of solid members.